One of most beloved elements of the Passover Haggadah is the discussion of the four sons. The Haggadah identifies four children, each with a unique personality. Four short vignettes advise the parent how to best teach each child the story of our redemption from Egypt. Many lessons are embedded in this cherished selection of Jewish literature. Let’s consider a few.
We must teach the child who is actually before us. Every child has unique talents and faces personal challenges. The talents are not always the ones we wish for our children and the challenges are sometimes different from the ones we are prepared to confront. To successfully educate and nurture our children we have to separate our own egos as parents and try to understand the real needs of our children.
This imperative to honestly assess and respond to the needs of our children is based upon our commitment to the education of every child. This commitment must apply to our children’s general education and to their Jewish education. Even children who are not talented or precocious students must be taught the meaning of living Jewishly. Jewish learning is not like AP Biology. Some students take the course. Others do not see themselves focusing on science in college. They decide the course does not serve their needs or interest them. If their Judaism is to be meaningful, our children must be Jewishly educated — every one of them.
Parents need to provide guidance and set boundaries. The rebellious son in the Haggadah is not ignored. Neither is he indulged. His parent responds to him with a pointed and meaningful retort. The parent in the Haggadah sets a boundary and communicates an expectation. I am head of a high school. Often parents tell me about important decisions that they are leaving in the hands of their children — 13- or 14-year-olds. This includes which school they will attend and other decisions that will shape their futures. Often, these parents are struggling to define their roles in their children’s lives.
It is important to foster independence and responsibility in our children. Involving our children in a decision-making process is a great learning experience. However, as parents we have accumulated a lifetime of experience and a wealth of knowledge. But when we ignore our own experience and knowledge and act impulsively, we usually achieve less-than-ideal outcomes. We should be careful about completely delegating important decisions to our children who lack life experience and our accumulated knowledge. Parents must provide guidance to their children. As parents, we must also create boundaries. We must establish areas in which we assign responsibility and authority to our children. But we must also place limits upon our children’s authority.
Also, our involvement in a key decision communicates to our children the issue is important enough to demand our attention. Parents who place life-altering decisions completely in their children’s hands — for example, which school to attend — communicate to their children that the decision is not important enough to demand their parents’ personal involvement. Once the child perceives this attitude, how likely is it that he or she will carefully and thoughtfully consider the decision?
Parents are role models whether for better or for worse. In the Haggadah’s account, the parent is the teacher. This communicates two important lessons: First, as parents we are responsible to personally participate in the education of our children. We cannot discharge our duty to educate our children by delegating their education to professional educators and then absenting ourselves from the education process.
Second, when we personally engage in dialogue with our children, we communicate that the ideas, concepts, and values we are discussing are important to us. Children are influenced by their parents’ example. When parents delegate all aspects of their children’s education to the professionals, their children ask why the material learned in school does not deserve any of their parents’ attention. Of course, this is especially relevant to our children’s Jewish learning. When this learning is not a topic of conversation between parents and child, the child is left wondering how important Jewish tradition and learning is to his or her parents.
A parent of one of my high school students shared with me his thoughts on this aspect of parenting. He acknowledged that when he sent his daughter to Northwest Yeshiva High School he assumed the professionals would take responsibility for her education and assure that she would turn out more or less as he and his wife envisioned. Then he realized his daughter was watching them. Actually, she was scrutinizing them to determine the degree to which they actually subscribed to the values she was learning in school. He realized that teenagers are remarkably skilled at uncovering every one of their parents’ inconsistencies, which they often characterize as hypocrisies. His conclusion was that school can educate but parents must model. Neither alone is effective. Combined they communicate a strong message.
If these few paragraphs from the Haggadah can teach us so much, imagine the wisdom and insight we can provide our children through a serious and high quality Jewish education.