After the Four Questions and Dayanu the most well known and popularly discussed section of the Haggadah are the Four Sons; the Wise, the Wicked, the Simple and the child who does not know to ask. There are hosts of explanations, interpretations and Midrashic insights into the implications that this section are intended to convey to the families gathered at their Seder. One of these insights that stand out to me is that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks referring to the Four Sons as the “Four Children” suggests that they are not four distinct individuals but are the stages that most children go through as part of their normal development. The child unable to ask is the youngest; a child unable to comprehend all that is happening and therefore unable to articulate a question. The next stage is the simple stage. The Simple child can ask simple even naïve questions out of an unsophisticated drive to understand and learn about the environment and him or herself. The third developmental stage is a stage that most people go through in one form or another, it is the stage where limits are tested, and as Rabbi Sacks says for most adolescents it is a time where rebellion is perceived “as a form of self-exploration.”  This stage can be viewed as a wicked time or as a time of transition. If the transition is handled appropriately, the child will grow into the Wise child.

There were times when I wondered whether the Four Sons were in fact analogous to, perhaps, four parenting styles. And then, I began reading the just published text Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations, by Vern Bengston, and two of his colleagues, Norella Putnet and Susan Harris. Bengston is a professor of Sociology and Social work and the senior investigator of a 35 year, longitudinal study of religion in multi generation families. This study, the Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG) began in 1969 with 350 families of several faiths. These families were interviewed several times until 2008 and new additions to the families were added to the study over the years.

There were some shocking findings and some soothing results in his report. These included the fact that over the 35 years and contrary to popular beliefs, there has been no significant statistical change in the percentage of religious similarity between parents and their children. Also, the Fathers who have had a close bond with their children tended to have children more accepting of their families religion and more likely to follow in their father’s religious beliefs. The one exception that stands out is in the Jewish families in this study. Much more than Jewish fathers, the Jewish mothers, who had a close bond with their children were more likely to have children who followed in their religious beliefs.

When all the patterns were analyzed Bengston and colleagues concluded “Parental warmth is the key to successful transmission.” Interestingly, the researchers found that there are four parenting styles that affect religious transmission across the generations. To a certain degree, they are reflective of the style of the four children of the Haggadah. One parenting style identified in the LSOG is that of ambivalence, where a parent may offer an unclear or mixed message or one parent is warm while the other is distant. Preoccupied parents are distracted from their responsibilities toward their children either by marital, financial or health problems. They form a second style of parenting. Distant or authoritarian parents who are demanding or difficult comprise the third style and the fourth is the style offered by warm, caring parents who build and maintain a close relationship with their children.

To my mind, ambivalent parents are like the child who does not know how to ask, seeking direction without understanding their environment or the responsibilities they have to their children. The strained or preoccupied parenting style is most aligned with the simple child. These parents are so preoccupied with the crises of their lives that they offer only simple answers driven by an urgency to resolve complex problems in an austere manner.  A wicked child is most likely to have been raised by cold authoritarian and distant parents, while the warm, nurturing parenting style is most likely to be aligned with a wise child.

Not surprisingly, warm, nurturing parents were the most likely to have responsive children who successfully maintained the families religious traditions. These parents were “unconditionally supportive,” “provided consistent role modeling” and did not force religious beliefs on their children. The other parenting styles were more likely to yield offspring who did not accept their parents’ religious traditions. The children raised by parents of the other three styles were emotionally and religiously stunted by the parenting style they were reared in. Furthermore, parents who continued to show love and respect to children who took a different approach to religion were likely to find that their children returned to the families’ religious beliefs and practices. A wise parent is more likely to raise a wise child. And, it is a wise parent that understands that children have to be loved and nurtured as he or she travel through their developmental challenges.