What 'Boyhood' Can Teach Jewish Parents – and Schools

Richard Linklater's cinematic triumph acknowledges the suffering adults cause when they project their own needs onto children.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film 'Boyhood.'
Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film 'Boyhood.'Credit: AP

This award season, the film to beat appears to be Richard Linklater’s daring and inventive triumph "Boyhood." Linklater filmed with the same cast over the course of 12 years, which enables the viewer to follow the two young protagonists as they grow from children into young adults, literally watching them age on screen.

Putting aside the experimental way it was made, I think "Boyhood" has captured so many hearts and minds because of the universality of its themes: How ordinary and extraordinary moments shape us in ways that are often unpredictable and undetectable; how our adult selves are often formed because of or in reaction to our childhood experiences; and how all parents, even the ones who try their best, wrestle with their own imperfections and struggle to live with their mistakes.

But to me, the film’s most important motif is the suffering adults cause when they ignore or minimize a child’s inner life. This, too, is a reality that, I believe, touches or has touched most of us in some way. Adults tend to project their own needs onto children, forcing them to do the things they want them to do, or to be the people they want them to be, rather than honoring who the children are and yearn to be. We have a picture - sometimes an unconscious picture, but a picture nonetheless - of how we feel our children should behave, what we believe they should know, what we yearn for them to love and embrace, and we tend to approach them from the place where we want them to be rather than meeting them where they are.

The poet Robert Bly talks about this phenomenon in a haunting passage in "A Little Book on the Human Shadow":

We came as infants 'trailing clouds of glory' arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life - in short, with our 360-degree radiance - and we offered this gift to our parents. They didn't want it. They wanted a nice girl or a nice boy. That's the first act of the drama. It doesn't mean our parents were wicked; they needed us for something...We do the same thing to our children; it's a part of life on this planet.

That insight reflects my own experience. I have a beautiful and brilliant (if I do say so myself) 2-year-old daughter who not only trails clouds of glory, but who is often the tempest itself. She brings hurricane-force personality, energy, physicality and curiosity to virtually everything she does. I am constantly amazed at her ability to leap from one thought to its polar opposite in an instant; to be passionately engaged in one activity for a few brief moments only to seamlessly get up and move on to another pursuit with equal zeal; to light up with inquisitiveness about a dozen different things in rapid-fire succession. At a young age, she innately knows what she loves, and fights vehemently for her ability to do those things.

Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke appear in a scene from 'Boyhood.' Photo: AP

In my good moments, I encourage my daughter’s enthusiastic pursuits, strengthening the ways in which she learns and grows through exploring her natural curiosities and reinforcing her sense that she inherently matters.

But candidly, there are also moments when I find myself longing for, in Bly’s words, a “nice girl”; one who follows directions without protest, keeps her voice down on command, knows about all the things I want her to know and falls in love with the things I love.

Sometimes, this desire is both reasonable and important; not everything a 2-year-old wants is good for her. But invariably, when I reflect on the biggest moments of struggle I’ve had with my daughter, or on the times when she seemed most deflated and unlike herself, somewhere in the narrative I was relating to my daughter from the place of longing for a “nice girl” rather than cherishing and nurturing the girl I had.

As a rabbi, I have been thinking a lot about how the same reality plagues supplemental Jewish education. While many talented professionals and volunteers work extraordinarily hard to make Hebrew school meaningful and enriching, too many such programs approach kids with a homogenous checklist of the information we think they should learn, expecting them to sit quiet, still and well-behaved as we uniformly impart to them this knowledge that we deem to be essential. All the while, we wonder why so many Hebrew school teachers spend as much classroom time disciplining as teaching, why kids seem to learn so little and why kids tend to drop out the moment their parents allow them to.

What if Hebrew schools flipped the script? What if we shifted from offering top-down, essentialist approaches to Jewish education, where adults tell kids what they’re supposed to know, to a bottom-up, grassroots approach, where adults allow kids to self-direct their learning? What would happen if Hebrew school were a place where the inner lives of Jewish children were honored, where kids were given space to discover for themselves aspects of their world or their tradition that pique their interest? Where adults encouraged, facilitated and supported the kids’ enthusiastic pursuits, helping them uncover paths to deepen and enrich their knowledge and connection to the Jewish tradition through their passions and loves? Where kids are met where they are, not where adults want them to be? Where the message that God and the Jewish community love our kids for who they are is reinforced by honoring and encouraging their innate curiosities? What if our Hebrew schools embodies the biblical wisdom to “Educate a child according to his or her own way, and s/he will not swerve from it even in old age?” (Proverbs 22:6).

Fortunately, just such an approach appears to be the vanguard in supplemental Jewish education. Initiatives like The Jewish Journey Project in New York, and JQuest and Route 613 in Philadelphia (the latter piloting at my beloved previous congregation, Har Zion Temple) are all rooted in this child-directed, exploratory philosophy. Supplemental Jewish schools that want to thrive in the 21st century will be wise to watch those programs closely. And those bold enough to adopt this progressive new model will, like "Boyhood," merit the accolades and awards.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.

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