Right from wrong: Thoughts on parenting

Among the central responsibilities of all parents is teaching our children the difference between wrong and right. This distinction is often clear: Hurting others is wrong. Helping those in need is right. But there are many, many situations in which this difference is anything but objective. Lately, I’ve been focused on one such gray area – that of religious beliefs.

I am a spiritual person. I believe in God and the value of religion. I particularly appreciate the focus many religions place on community and supporting one another. I want to pass on these beliefs to my children. At the same time, we have close friends with religious beliefs very different than our own. I try to respect these friends and their beliefs. I try not to judge (it’s hard – judging is so much fun!). But like many things in life, it gets complicated when it comes to the kids.

My son, who is in second grade, prefers not to wear his kippa (yarmulke, beanie, etc.). He is not ideologically opposed (he’s 7) or even vehemently against it. He just doesn’t prefer it. He wears it to his religious school, where it’s part of the dress code, with no complaints. He wears it to synagogue without putting up a fight. But outside of these contexts his preference is to have nothing on his head.  In an effort to minimize the religious coercion in our home, we don’t force the issue. We’ve discussed the fact that the kippa is a symbol, an outward expression of beliefs and that it is the beliefs that matter. He gets that. But what if one day he comes home and tells us that he doesn’t hold those beliefs? Or that a kippa is not a strong enough expression of his belief system?

When we lived in the US, some of our closest Jewish friends did not observe Shabbat. More than once as we walked the mile to synagogue on Saturday (uphill, both ways!) our friends drove by on their way to whatever they had planned for that morning. After exchanging greetings, we continued the trek to synagogue and they their ride to their Saturday morning hike/bowling/shopping trip.

Of course the questions come from the little people. Why are they driving on Shabbat? Why can’t we go to the movies?  In essence, why is something acceptable for one person but forbidden for another?

In discussing these differences in beliefs and lifestyles with our children, we typically comment that “different people do different things.” Neither is inherently better or worse. It’s a matter of what is “right” for that family or that friend.

I genuinely want my children to share my beliefs about God and religion. I want to share the Shabbat table and the glow of our rich tradition with my grandchildren. But different people do different things. And if I teach my children that those “things” are acceptable for our friends, how could I then claim that they’re not valid life choices for my children?

My son is nearly 8 years old, so we haven’t fielded any significant theological questions yet (other than being asked to reconcile the creation narrative with dinosaurs and evolution). But I’d like to believe that should my child come home one day with beliefs to the right or left of my own, I will respect those beliefs as I try to respect those of people outside our family. And if I’ve done something right, I hope they will continue to respect mine.

About the Author
Judah is Assistant Professor of Clinical Child Psychology and Special Education at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University. He is associate director of the Autism Center at Hebrew University and is chair of the graduate division in Special Education.
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