Parenting and Children
"Educate a child according
to his way and when he grows old he won't depart from it."
Say "Goodnight Moon" and almost every parent will inevitably
sigh with warm memories of the cuddly bedtime story. In simple
words and pictures, the indelible impression it leaves on both
children and parents-that contented feeling of "what a good
story!"-can translate into a lifelong love of books and
their subject matter.
That's the task of a good children's book:
As it entertains and educates-without being obvious about either-it
should encourage imagination, impart some universal truths, reveal
new worlds or offer comfort in the ordinary world around us.
It should touch each child according to his or her own needs
and age. And it should create lasting memories.
It's tempting to trivialize children's books;
after all, their sparse prose seems so easy to write, a snap
to read. But children's authors work hard precisely to make their
stories clear and unpretentious. For that reason, books can serve
as the best parenting tools in the hands of caring, creative
parents who are seeking to transmit values and information. Part
of the warm-fuzzy feeling of children's books is their focus
on family-safe, secure and warm environments that nurture and
accept children for all their playfulness and curiosity. Reading
together creates a similar real-life intimacy, a deep bond between
parent and child. There are few better feelings than having your
child nestle against you as you read to him or her.
For Jewish parents struggling to impart Jewish
values in a secular world, children's books provide a good beginning.
Reading Jewish children's books together not only fulfills the
Torah's commandment-víshinantam levanekha: teach your
children-but in less grandiose terms, it's fun!
The Jewish children's book market has flowered
in the past decade. No longer is the number of books in the category
limited to the fingers of both hands. Instead, the range has
become almost daunting: Jewish mysteries, adventures and biographies;
board books introducing Jewish symbols; books on G-d, prayer
and mitzvot; Holocaust memoirs; Bible stories and folktales;
holiday anthologies and activity books. Skim the books to make
sure you are comfortable with the traditions pictured, which
vary widely from Orthodox families complete with payis to women
Holidays predominate as the theme of Jewish
children's books, largely because that's what sells at gift-giving
seasons such as Hanukkah and Passover. Many books describe holiday
customs and history, often within the context of a story. But
even if you are reading a simple tale, try to make the leap between
simply imparting information to sharing deeper values. Long ago,
our rabbis described these two levels as p'shat-(the simple level)
and d'rash (the deeper meaning). Rosh Hashanah, for instance,
is not just about apples dipped in honey; it's also about taking
responsibility for our actions. Hanukkah is not just about candles,
gifts and dreidels; it's also about standing up for our beliefs.
Passover is not just about matzah and macaroons; it's also about
continuity. Discussing values in the context of stories can go
far in modeling behavior, teaching ethics and exploring the passion
of Judaism without hit-'em-over-the-head didacticism.
As predominant as they are in children's books,
holidays represent only one square on the quilt of Jewish heritage.
Whimsical and wise folktales, biblical stories reclaimed and
retold, and modern midrashim based on classic sources help children
trace the long lines of Jewish tradition. Today's books even
help children to re-imagine G-d. In a contemporary vein, stories
featuring Jewish characters who subliminally impart their pride
in being Jewish or who struggle with their Jewish identities
can focus parents and pre-adolescents on the questions and comforts
of being Jewish in America today.
In his new book, Jewish Parenting Wisdom,
Steven Rosman shares a story originally told by Menachem Mendel
Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe. The story is about parents
who bring their 12-year-old child to a nearby rabbi for help
and guidance. After listening to their parenting problems, the
rabbi asks them why they have waited so long to seek help.
"So long!" the parents exclaim.
"Why, he is still such a young child. In fact, he is not
yet even a bar mitzvah."
"That may be so," replied the rabbi,
"but just as a scratch on the branch of a 12-year-old tree
will have little effect while a scratch on a seed can influence
its growth completely, so education must begin with a child's
Reading Jewish children's books is an opportunity-an
opportunity to learn about Jewish heroes and emulate them; to
discover new customs and follow them; to discuss ideas and ideals,
behaviors and relationships; to share stories of loving families
and see yourself mirrored in the pages. Reading Jewish children's
books is an opportunity to help your children find their voices-voices
that will hopefully resonate with the rich and vibrant strains
Rahel Musleah is a freelance writer and the co-author, with Rabbi
Michael Klayman, of Sharing Blessings: Children's Stories
for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays