A Jewish Lesson in Raising Responsible Children

It all starts with independence and respect.

Dan Keinan

As children around the world get ready to return to school, the blogosphere is full of discussions about starting the year safely. Last month, the question of whether safety should come at the expense of our children's independence even made its way into the U.S. Senate, where a "Free-Range Kids and Parents" clause was added into federal law, permitting parents to let their children walk or ride their bike to school at whatever age they deem appropriate.

The legislation, proposed by Sen. Mike Lee (R, Utah), came in response to a series of incidents in which parents were arrested — and children traumatized — for allowing their kids to play unsupervised outdoors. Those incidents have spurred debate about “helicopter parenting” versus “free-range parenting,” pitting parents who hover protectively over their children against parents who allow their kids a measure of freedom, even if it entails some risks.

Studies show that a lack of freedom in one's childhood causes serious problems later in life. Overprotected kids grow into more vulnerable adults who are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression; may be deficient in life skills, such as decision making and weighting of alternatives; and are hampered in their ability to achieve their own goals compared to those who are allowed to take their own risks.

Children in Israel enjoy great freedom and independence. They routinely walk or bike to school alone and younger children are often seen at the local grocery store, running errands, or hanging out at the park without adult supervision.

Some of the reasons Israeli kids appear to have greater freedom than in other Western countries are structural: neighborhoods — at least the older ones — were built to be pedestrian-friendly places with schools, parks, and groceries within walking distance from home. But part of the difference is also institutional — a matter of deeply-rooted cultural norms. Jewish tradition has always valued children, and this has remained true even in Israel’s increasingly individualistic society. The First Commandment in the Torah, “Go forth and multiply” was interpreted in the Talmud as meaning that a man is required to marry and to sire at least two children; some say, at least two of each gender.

But beyond this, Jewish tradition requires that children be educated to independence. The rabbis of the Talmud instructed every father to teach his son a trade, but some said he also must teach his son how to swim. It’s clear that the job of the parent is to teach the child to be independent — but why swimming? I think the reason is that swimming involves being out of one’s element. The job of the parent is to give the child the necessary skills to survive in a foreign, and potentially hazardous, environment — in short, to teach the child coping skills.

Some of these skills are learned though being responsible for others, a responsibility that is incurred very early in a Jewish child’s life. It isn’t at all unusual for Israeli children under the age of ten to be responsible for caring for their younger brothers and sisters, including changing diapers and feeding them. But even those who don’t have the (mixed) blessing of younger siblings acquire certain responsibilities at the age of bar and bat mitzvah. From that point on, the child alone is considered legally responsible for his or her actions. Parents even say a special blessing on a child’s reaching this stage, thanking God for being released from responsibility for their child's wrongdoings.

Additional responsibility comes from the requirement to honor one’s parents. The Talmud (Kiddushin 29-32) sets out the duties of a child toward his or her parents, including providing for them physically, running errands for them, and even extends to not sitting in one’s father’s chair or correcting one’s mother in public. In Jewish tradition, the parents are the ones to be coddled, not the children. It may be that this is a form of balancing: Talmud or no Talmud, parents are going to coddle their children to some extent; so by imposing a reciprocal responsibility on the child, the Torah ensures that it’s not a one-way street.

Jewish culture is based on obligations rather than rights. Children regularly take part in communal responsibilities — visiting the sick, attending funerals, comforting mourners, and dancing at weddings — all of which indirectly underscore the fact that life has its ups and downs, and that we are all responsible for one another. These are things that can’t be taught; they must be experienced.

And so, rather than trying to cushion our children from the vicissitudes of life, we expose them to both the good and the bad, all the while giving them the skills to cope with what life throws at them. They also learn one of the most important skills of all — the ability to trust others to lend a helping hand at need.

The bottom line is that a healthy society is one in which children are provided with a high degree of freedom, responsibility and trust. To give them that, we need to create communities that are safe for children to roam, workplaces must give employees ample leave to provide the necessary care to their families, and education must be made a high priority.

Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.