The issue of children and chores is steadily escalating in our home. The conflicts have been compounded by the onslaught of the High Holidays and the intense amount of activity surrounding the preparations. I grew up not doing anything in the kitchen and was totally ignorant about food preparation when I married. I don’t want that for my children. However, when I demand that they participate, they balk. At times they do help but it’s usually when they’ve been threatened with punishment or if the chore itself is a punishment. Is there a Jewish insight on these issues?
This is an important Jewish matter on three levels. First, as Jewish parents, you are raising the future of the Jewish people, and this demands excruciatingly expert exactitude on your part. Though no parent wants to mess things up, so to speak, I feel we have an additional responsibility considering the giant of generations that have preceded us and the great stake we each share in the destiny of our people. Our children, and their approach to serving, is critical.
Second, the center of Judaism is the Jewish home. You cannot afford to fail at creating a loving, engaging and dynamic Jewish space for your children to grow up in. No school or synagogue can replace the authentic Jewish ambience that only you can create in your own home. Your children’s Judaism will grow intensely and be nurtured to a large extent within the walls of your home. Upkeep of the Jewish home is the upkeep of a mikdash me’at — a miniature holy space. Attitudes to chores that contribute to the maintenance of holiness are of great consequence.
Third, honoring parents is one of the Ten Commandments. That’s big. We usually think about the commandment in terms of what children must do for parents, I like to think of the fifth commandment in terms of parenting. What are we doing as parents to ensure that our children are able to observe the commandment to its fullest? What kind of parents are we? Are we parents for whom honor will come naturally? Or are we failing them by placing obstacles in our children’s paths?
The method we use for expressing expectations to our children is a delicate matter. We do not want to frame commands and demands in words or tones that discourage adherence. Rather, we want to express our expectations in a framework that is conducive to obedience, joy and delight and lead to satisfaction upon achievement.
No small task. In my mind, chores are an honor and should not ever be a punishment or construed or presented as such. It is an honor to help prepare dinner, to help cook for Shabbat or for a holiday. It is a privilege to clean the house and to perform even the most mundane and routine tasks. Chores become the conduit through which order, commitment and love flow through to the humans who live in the house.
This should be the tone: positive, respectful and full of high expectations. Just as we each feel honored and joyful at being able to do for the ones we love, so too our children must learn the deep satisfaction and pleasure of participating in these seemingly commonplace activities.
I say seemingly, because at first glance peeling the potatoes seems far from lofty. But when those potatoes grace the dinner wherein a family gathers to share its day and lovingly connect with each other suddenly that potato is very special and, dare I say, holy.
There is an additional element contributing to the lofty nature of the Jewish table. This teaching from Pirke Avot expresses it perfectly: “Do not seek greatness for yourself, and lo, do not crave honor; …do not lust for the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs and your crown is greater than theirs.”
There is a regal nuance to the Jewish table that transcends the ordinary serving of food. Shabbat meals, holiday celebrations and even an ordinary weekday repast are elevated to nobility when they are meals that reflect Jewish notions of holiness, gratitude and appreciation reflected in the practices and parameters of kashrut, blessings and conversation. The food on our plates is prepared with deliberation and discipline. Our food is eaten with blessings ahead of and after, preventing the ugliness of ungratefulness.
Finally, our talk is talk of uplift and never of pettiness or gossip. Our tables are tables of greatness. Hence the actions that lead to the actualization of the royal table are in and of themselves holy, noble and the stuff of greatness. Our children deserve to have a share in that transcendence.
The actualization of all of this is, of course, a challenge. Here are three guidelines: first, you must embrace the joy of serving as well. You cannot expect it of your children if they cannot see it in your own countenance. Put on Jewish music, be lighthearted, and try not to feel pressured. Organization and planning help with this.
Second, let go of ideas of perfection. If you want your children to perform tasks in the house you need to genuinely appreciate their help and respect their efforts. Offer lots of positive reinforcement and let them do the fun creative jobs and always offer choices. Humans like to have choices.
Finally, articulate the why. Explain the value of a beautiful table, share your ideas of love of tradition, and help them understand how they are learning in order to prepare for their own home. There is no greater joy than seeing your values living on in your children’s homes. Do this right and you will!
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an email at email@example.com.