Monday, March 3, 2014

Shabbos with Young Children - Let's Not Lose the Beauty

This blog post has been simmering for a while because I want to be very careful not to offend anybody.
I read a post on another website that at first just made me sad. Monumentally. Overwhelmingly. Sad.
Then I received a very encouraging email from a blog reader about some of the ways she feels my blog inspires others and I realized I must say something.
I cannot in good conscience link the actual post on my blog because frankly, I find the style it was written in to be too crass. I will try to to justice to the author while omitting foul language and crudeness.
Before I begin let me state that I myself have raised a family of four children, the first three in three years. Yes. I had three children in diapers at the same time as we cared for ailing parents and grandparents, and no, my home was anything but perfect during those whirlwind years. I remember them well. 
I am NOT here to judge or to criticize. 
But perhaps to inspire......

The article began like this:
"....Oh, Friday night dinner. You’re meant to be the highlight of the Jewish week. Each day we grow closer and closer to you, our anticipation measured by the lists and the shopping and the cooking and then the more shopping to get all the things we forgot, all of it building to a monumental crescendo of hope, promise, expectancy, and all of it ending in complete, unfettered, unmitigated disaster."
Encouraging start, right? Further on, after the author details multiple arguments among her children, she continues with this .... 
"At some point, we get everyone upstairs. We light some candles, and pour some grape juice.
“She got more than me.”
“Why does he always get that cup?”
I won’t dignify any of these with my responses, but at some point we get them to drink the juice and move on to the challah, but not until we've all complained about the table plan.
“I want to sit next to you.” All week long nobody really wants to sit anywhere near me, but Friday night dinner becomes a virtual smack-down to see who can physically climb back into my uterus. This can go on for hours, but usually ends with someone getting up and leaving the table, refusing to return. Often, there is a slammed door.
Still, we soldier on through the too-hot chicken soup (“Why does she get two ice cubes in hers when I only got one?”) and usually that’s about it. Anything else I’ve made rarely surfaces because one kid refused to join us at all, one kid left during candle lighting, two got into a fight over the grape juice and… you get the idea.
We try to talk about what they've learned in school all week, but maybe “all week” is still too close, because it becomes a shouting match to show us who learned the most, or really, who can talk the longest and the loudest.
Disagreements that on any other night would be shrugged off, become world wars–with each child going from zero to really [upset] in about three seconds flat.
Food that they devour in other people’s houses (I have actual reports, actual reports) is suddenly untouchable, so revolting that it needs to be pushed away from the eater. Believe me when I tell you that we have been out for Friday night dinner and I have had the kids ask me to get the recipe for a dish that I myself make regularly. At least two of the kids will at least try a dish, but only after they have picked out all the things they don’t like (a mushroom, a walnut–why do I bother?) and put them on the table.
Oh, and of course each child (and have I mentioned that there are five of them?) makes sure to make a brief appearance at the table in order to spill something.
At some point, my husband and I, left alone at the table with its sodden, stained tablecloth and chunks of discarded challah and unwanted food, look at each in complete bewilderment."
Meal over. But then we get the kicker:
"And there’s the rub. EACH WEEK WE ARE SURPRISED. Not only is it like it’s never happened before, but it’s like it didn't just happen LAST WEEK.Because, come Wednesday, I will realize that tomorrow is Thursday, which means that Friday is only 48 hours away. Come Wednesday, I will start a brand new list on a fresh piece of white paper. Come Wednesday I will plan a menu that nobody will eat. Come Wednesday, I am born anew.
In short, I have no institutional memory. Each week I repeat the Kabuki dance of Shabbat dinner, convinced that THIS week is going to be the week that it all comes together for me.
I’ll let you know when it happens."
You would think that this in itself would be enough to make me sad. I mean, isn't one definition of insanity repeating the same actions over and over and expecting different results?
But that is not what upset me the most. What really got to me was the myriad of reader comments that followed not only identifying with the writer, but glorifying her experiences. Is this what Shabbos across America really looks like??!?! I find this terribly depressing and unnerving.
Now I am fully aware that Friday night dinner with children cannot ever be a formal "adults only" affair, but I do wonder whether perhaps some parents are no longer teaching their children boundaries and are suffering because of it. Suffering to the point which even Shabbos meals are something to be dreaded and the day loses much of its holiness.

I've given this some thought and I have some advice for this woman:

  1. Do something early in the day when the kids get home from school to start setting the mood for Shabbos (I couldn't bring myself to excerpt the author's description of her Friday afternoon, but suffice it to say it too was less than optimal). Create a Shabbos playlist of Shabbos songs to play loudly around the house. Act excited YOURSELF for the upcoming day. Perhaps even consider taking your children to shul (or have some special Shabbos books to read after candlelighting while your husband is in shul that make the evening special for the children).
  2. Assign your children seats at the table. Rotate seats on a weekly basis if you must but frankly, life will not always be equal, it's time they learn to be prepared for that.
  3. Be a leader, not a bystander. This is not really a Shabbos-only problem. Parents need to set boundaries for their children's behavior all week long. Parents need to get over the concept that not giving in to their children's every whim will scar them for life. Newsflash: A generation ago, even though each child was an "individual", mothers made ONE DINNER. One. And the children ate it - whether it was their favorite or not. And if not? There was another meal coming in a little while. Nobody starved. And if you stomp off from the table - don't plan on returning (to spill something or otherwise). Actions have consequences. Start setting limits and following through. They'll think twice next time.
  4. As one commenter was brave enough to suggest - sing some zemiros or something! Find activities that will make the day special to your children. Use their currency...not yours.
  5. And last but not least, INVITE GUESTS TO YOUR MEAL! "How can I bring guests to my meal when my children don't behave?", you ask. Never underestimate the power of an unfamiliar face to get children to mind their manners. Of course, you need to have items 1-4 in place in order for this to work and I fully recognize that mommies of small children may not have the head for a lot of guests all the time. But try it once in a while. And don't get hung up on making everything perfect (Yes! I just said that!) Most guests who are looking for a family meal are very happy with how ever you make Shabbos.
I'm interested in my readers' advice on how to make Shabbos successful with young children. I'm writing this post to restore my faith in families. I refuse to believe, dozens of comments aside, that this is the way most households see Shabbos. Everything in degrees - I know. But this just went too far.......


HSaboMilner said...

Great post!! I would add that giving each child a task / responsibility for the shabbat table helps with keeping them there. It gives them pride -"I put out the napkins", "I stirred the ice tea" etc.

Yes, I had many Shabbatot like those of the original author. But when I made an effort to include my young kids and have Shabbat in a way that spoke to them it went so much easier.

If the parents foster a positive attitude the kids will too. The opposite works just as well, sadly.

Alison said...

Uuuugh, that article really annoyed me when I read it a few weeks ago! I also found it kind of intimidating because my kids are still too little to fight about these silly things she speaks of. BUT I know better. I don't know what really goes on in her house but really? Every week? The same thing? Come on. For the time being we all look forward to shabbos in my house and I just hope she can figure something out!

Princess Lea said...

I can't believe someone is claiming that it's the fault of Shabbos that her kids are brats. That is certainly a new theory.

Yeah, kids can be a pain, so that is why they have PARENTS to teach them how to behave. Like she was such a pleasure when she was young? Or did her mother not put up with any monkey business?

If a child storms away from the table, big whoop. He is only doing that because he knows a parent is going to come running after him. I would think it would be a pleasure to have a child sulking in his room. Call his bluff and leave him alone. He'll sheepishly be out of there in five minutes, tops.

Nearly every situations she cites, like how the kids "suddenly" fight about who gets to sit near the parents, is a power play. And she gives in to them time and time again.

The point of Shabbos is Shabbos, not the Shabbos meal. This poor woman needs to get her parenting skills down pat. I am embarrassed for her that she blames Shabbos for her own missteps.

I would add if there are really small children still, she would be better off putting them to bed instead of keeping them up for a meal. Tired kids misbehave; that's what they do. They can bond at Shabbos lunch.

Nice Shabbos meals isn't about the food. It's about the tone. Parents set that.

Yehudah said...

Unfortunately, this is indeed the state of affairs in many, many homes -- I would say the majority. Parents have ceased being parents, having imbibed popular theories of the last 50 years which dictate that disciplining somehow harms children.

Faygie said...

Fantastic post- thanks for getting it out there!

FBB said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your response to this woman, G6.I agree that it's a parenting issue, but I would posit something else.

I am willing to bet that this woman does not love Shabbos and Yom Tov herself, and that coupled with her kids behavior resulted in her posts, her attitude and her kids' attitudes. Do my kids fight on Shabbos? You betcha. Do I let it effect my Shabbos, my prep,or anything? No way. I love Shabbos too much. Kids are going to be kids, and they will only love Shabbos if they have a parent who doesn't resent it, who embraces it, and doesn't have expectations that are unrealistic.

I remember a few years ago reading one of the serialized stories in Mishpacha magazine, and the scene was one of a "normal" Shabbos table. What does that mean? That not everything was perfect.

You just can't blame Shabbos. You can blame the Jewish media and fiction for usually painting a picture of perfection that often does not happen with small children. It doesn't have to be perfect.
It just has to be yours, and yours with love.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I was also very demoralized to see the original quoted and agreed with by some of my friends. If this is the way things are, then it's no wonder kids grow up and choose different paths... We live in a small community where we do outreach. I have two sets of twins and a singleton and there are only five years between the oldest and youngest so I feel quite qualified to comment. We developed a whole system, partly because we are in a community where there isn't excitement about shabbos, and partly because I had a clear idea of how I wanted the family to be... we start the excitement with a special little treat in the lunchbox Friday morning in honour of shabbos... and an erev shabbos treat (still known, as the shabbospretreat) when everyone has cleaned up enough on Friday afternoon (speaking very small things here and it only works if you're not giving a ton of treats all week) - we made a decision to call it Shabbos Kodesh, always, not just shabbos, because it gives such a strong message to them about how we feel - I use real linens etc, but still let the children help at every level they are capable, even if they mess up the napkins that I so carefully ironed... (I've given up ironing them in the last few years)..We cut out the fish course years ago because they couldn't sit through it - likewise, I was mevater on Aishet Chayil to keep things moving when they were smaller.. before they started school, they would come to the fruit store on my shopping trips and choose a fruit that was l'kavod shabbos - all during the week we would be doing things that built up shabbos... and we have a million guests... I don't do separate kid-meals, and I love to cook, but I use recipes that are friendly to children as well and have slowly become more sophisticated again as their palates allowed - I made some dishes that they didn't love, but there was always something that everyone would like on the table... because of the twins, now they are in school, we get identical parsha sheets - even this, we divide so each child gets a turn to present on Friday night and a turn on Saturday and switch it each week.... everyone should own the book, "Around the shabbos table" where the moral is no matter what no matter where, I'll be happy anywhere....Things go wrong - they used to fight about who got to wash first, so we made an order for each week... each child takes a course to clear... now the children are older, they sometimes disappear to the sofa now and then, but get herded back periodically. I don't always feel in the mood for shabbos because I too am a flawed person, but I don't think that I have ever let my children have the slightest sense that shabbos is hard exhausting work for me and that I don't always feel like guests, because that's really my problem to deal with (and I could choose no guests) and I want them to only feel the excitement and pleasure of shabbos... my children LOVE shabbos. They are now 12, 10x2 and 7x2. People are very afraid to parent today, and they don't realize that they are no longer the children, and are in fact the ones who set the limits.... I'm so glad you addressed this....Sarah

Mi said...

I don't remember where I saw that original piece, but I saw it too. And I thought wow too bad, like they really missed the train.

I agree with the previous commenter who said kids are going to fight but it's my attitude that preserves my appreciation for Shabbos.

Also, for many years most of the time the kids didn't care we were singing zmiros, and we didn't always have the energy to do it (and we didn't). But once in a while a kid just sits and sings with us and asks for more - and it's all worth it.

It also takes both parents to invest a little on this. If either or both are only thinking "when can we get those kids to sleep so we can have our own rest time" it just doesn't work. I come out of Shabbos a little more tired, with a lot more dirty dishes, and I just accept that.

Now that we have some kids over 10 we see much more of the fruits of our labors. But that also means some of them ask us to play looong board games.....

daughtersintheparsha said...

I was going to give my lengthy opinion, not unlike the opinions of many previous posters.
But then I decided to read the orginal blog, by doing a cut/paste of some key sentences that you posted.
And when I found the blog, and saw that the original poster titled her blog post with the "F" word in it, I decided that pretty much sums up why she has such difficult and unpleasant Friday nights.

If you don't set yourself apart from the non-jewish world in your actions and your speech, the spirituality of your home is compromised.

Yes. I am saying using bad language, even on a blog, tells me something small about how you live and what goes on in your home, every day. Not just on Shabbos.

G6 said...

I received the following via email and thought I might share it in the comments section:
"Our daughter's friend has this website. Maybe it could help the person who needs assistance with her children to enjoy Shabbos.Kol tuv and Happy Purim."

BLD said...

Are married friends considered Hachnosos Orchim if they can make their own Shabbos Table ? I always wonder about that. I dont think so.

YW said...

The great Rosh Yeshivha of ponevezh, Rav Shach Z"l, is quoted as saying that the reason that his son did not turn out the way he would have liked him to turn out, is that during his shabbos meals he spent with his head in a gemorah and other seforim. He said that if he would have spent the shabbos meals singing zemiros and make it more kid friendly, his son could have turned out to be a godol like him.

YW said...

BLD- The malachim who went to went to Avrohom Aveinu certainly did not need the food that he prepared and we out the halachos of Hachnosos Orchim from him.