A Child’s Right to Choose by Robin Gorman Newman
I’m a big fan of freedom of choice, but I ask the question, how does that apply to children?
My son, Seth, is 9 years old, and said something particularly smart this week that stopped my husband and me in our tracks.
He’s in third grade, and this has been his first year attending Hebrew School.
My husband had a Bar Mitzvah when he was young and was raised by a mother who was born in Germany and brought up in Israel. This was very important to his family.
I, on the other hand, was a Hebrew School dropout. I needed to have my tonsils removed, and missed so many days of Hebrew due to constant sore throats that I was yanked out. Or at least, that’s how I recall it.
My parents could have re-enrolled me once my health improved, but that didn’t happen. I can’t say I missed it. My sister didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah… and I didn’t have any friends who did. It wasn’t the popular thing to do at the time for girls. Nowadays, the occasion, for many, has morphed into an opportunity to host a swanky affair à la “keeping up with the Joneses.” My Brother-in-Law and his wife threw an impressive black tie Bar Mitzvah for our nephew… complete with a former Met signing baseballs, among other costly attractions.
My husband feels strongly about a Bar Mitzvah for my son. I respect the Jewish religion, and in a perfect world, would love Seth to marry a Jewish girl, if for no other reason than to maintain family tradition, including celebrating certain holidays that bring back warm family memories for me… and hopefully for Seth as he grows up. So, I support a Bar Mitzvah, though my hope/plan is that we’ll have it done at the Wall in Israel… keeping it special/intimate, minus a pricey shindig in New York.
That said, Seth despises Hebrew School. I’ve had talks with the head of the School who has had conversations with his teacher. They’ve been very supportive and have tried to inspire Seth, but it’s not working.
When he came home from public school this week and I was preparing for us to then head off to Hebrew, he burst out into hysterical tears, saying he did not want to go. I called my husband on the phone and we agreed to let him stay home, but to ban him from playing on his computer or with his DS or watching television. We said he could watch television only after dinner, but that was it. We gave Seth the opportunity to choose Hebrew School vs. that punishment. He said he understood, and opted to stay home.
When my husband came home after work and we sat down as a family for dinner, Seth initiated a conversation re: what had transpired. He wanted to know why he couldn’t also play on his computer or with his DS since we were allowing television. We explained that that was not the punishment as we laid it out to him. We said we gave him a choice, and he stayed home. He then said “But, you didn’t give me the choice of attending Hebrew School. You enrolled me.”
I thought “wow.” Totally true.
I didn’t know how to respond, and stated something to the effect, “Your father and I would like you to have a Bar Mitzvah, and Hebrew School prepares you for that.”
I then thought to myself, “When does a child get to choose?”
As parents, we like to think we know best. But I don’t believe in forcing a child to pursue something when it doesn’t work for them. My son dropped out of Cub Scouts, soccer and baseball and we didn’t bat an eye. Where does Hebrew School fit into the picture? And what about future decisions?
There is more than one way to get to a Bar Mitzvah. Maybe what we need to do is hire a private tutor to teach Seth. We can certainly explore that option.
But, again, I ask, how do you know when to push a child against their will? You hear stories of parents who make their kids practice the violin endlessly, study for hours, etc… all in the pursuit of success. Remember the controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua?!
What about happiness? Does diligence in the face of reluctance lead to happier adulthood? What about enjoying childhood? You’re only young once.
If we allow Seth to drop out of Hebrew School, is this sending him the message that it’s okay to throw in the towel, even if on a selective basis, when something isn’t all that exciting to him? Would he regret it in later years?
I know that on a weekly basis, Hebrew School isn’t a fight I’m willing to have with Seth. For our family, it doesn’t feel critical in the scheme of things. To think that attending Hebrew School is SO on his mind every Tuesday that he walks into the door and immediately declares he’s not going is hard. It’s as if he spent the day in dread. I don’t want that for him. But at the same time, not everything in life is pleasant, and we do what we have to do out of obligation.
So, what’s a parent to do? Force learning or allow a smart, generally cooperative child to opt out?
What would you do?
Note: This blog post first ran on Huffington Post.