Teaching our children to swim

Photo Credit to Steven Van Loy

As we approach Father’s Day, it’s important to remember that when a child learns, it’s usually by trial and error, but when you are a parent, it’s sink or swim. 

The Talmud teaches that, among other things, a father must teach his son Torah, teach him a marketable trade so he can earn a living, and help him get married. The Talmud then curiously adds an additional opinion: A father must also teach his son to swim. 

Any loving parent would feel responsible to teach their child a profession or skill so they can earn a livelihood or help their children form their own family by trying to marry them off, but what about teaching a child to swim?

I believe this parental responsibility has a deeper meaning. Life can be turbulent at times and it can be hard to stay afloat — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. A good parent helps prepare their child for the challenges of life that lie ahead and the best way to do this is by example. If a child sees their parent handling a stressful situation in a calm manner — without raising their voice or getting angry — an impression is made on their child. If anger or aggression are seen as part of a parent’s response, that too leaves an impression. It was terribly troubling to learn of increased domestic abuse during the time of the pandemic. 

But while the pandemic has caused untold tragedies, many families, including my own, have had more time to be together. Parents have been working from home, so they have been able to have dinner together more often. Some parents have truly appreciated this unexpected gift, while others have taken this extra family time for granted, resulting in children getting less attention. Making children feel valued and validated, even when there are so many other distractions parents have to navigate, is critical.  And giving them boundaries is no less important. In my first book, Beyond the Instant, I spoke of the dangers of social media as one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Online bullying and easy access to inappropriate and disturbing images are just two of the challenges parents must prepare their children to confront today.

By teaching your child to swim through these rough waters, a father or mother can also provide their son or daughter with the emotional intelligence to handle someone who shares a different opinion without crumbling. And as our children mature into their college years, mothers and fathers must teach their children to recognize fact from fiction. UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs chose Patrisse Cullors as its commencement speaker, despite her comment back in 2015 that, “Palestine is our generation’s South Africa. If we don’t step up boldly to end the imperialist project that’s called Israel, we’re doomed.”  Our children must know a lie when they hear it. Israel is not a “project” but the only place and democracy in the Middle East where all groups enjoy equal rights.

Our children must also hear their parents speak out against anti-Semitism when it rears its ugly head, as it has again these last few months. If our children are to swim in today’s turbulent waters, they must be taught to respond to such hatred, even when politically inexpedient. Our enemies expect us to remain quiet, fading into the background until our voices are silenced. After the Holocaust, we swore to ourselves, “Never Again.” That time is now. 

While Hamas has been identified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Canada, the media have created turbulent waters by merely calling them “militants” rather than using the proper legal term “terrorists.” As parents, we must respond, and we must do so by drawing upon the wisdom of our Torah, just as relevant today as any time before.

Each and every year, the High Holidays provide us with the opportunity to take stock of our lives and evaluate how we are facing the new challenges we confront. My new book, The 40 Day Challenge: Daily Jewish Insights to Prepare For The High Holidays, contains easily digestible Jewish wisdom to be read each day from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (August 8until Yom Kippur to help you use this time on the Jewish calendar to become the best version of yourself and learn the values that can help us all confront today’s issues.

We are living in a new world with new challenges. While it is vital that we give our children the skills to study Torah and earn a living, they also need to learn how to swim — to navigate life. We cannot allow our children to be solely educated by their iPads and social media devices. Parents must once again become the teachers they once were to their children, drawing their wisdom from the rich Jewish heritage that has provided guidance to countless generations of Jews.

Father’s Day is often about the gifts we receive from our children. Given all the issues the Jewish community now confronts, this year let’s give our children the greatest gift we can ever bequeath them: Jewish values and wisdom.

It’s never too late to learn how to swim.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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