Parenting Podcast: Can We Make Children Make Friends
As a Jewish educator, I could say that the administrative task of assigning children to classes does not really put to use my graduate level studies. But if a synagogue is a place where we live out our Jewish ethics and which challenges us to be better people and better Jews, than indeed it does.
For example, I create religious school classes based on recommendations from the prior year’s teachers, Hebrew assessments, and requests from parents. After receiving the class list for her child, a parent once called me to complain. How could I put her child in a class with only two other people she knew? She asked, “Do you know what you are doing? You are asking a fourth grader to make a new friend!” In this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast, Dr. Weissbourd challenges us on this touchy subject. He says, “There are a lot of subtle ways in which we privilege our kids’ happiness over their attentiveness to other people.” Parents are often so focused on how their own children are feeling that they do not teach them how to be aware of how other children are feeling. Dr. Weissbourd reflects on how he himself did this as a parent by letting his children dismiss peers that irritated them. He is not unique.
As a director of a religious school, I strive to create a place in which all students feel safe and part of the community. At the same time, however, I also want each student to have a positive experience and enjoy being in the synagogue. It is often difficult to find a balance between the two. I recall one instance where a parent requested for her son, “Josh,” to be with another boy, “Sam.” At the same time, Sam’s parents specifically requested that Sam not be in class with Josh due to social difficulties they had in secular school. When deciding how to handle this, I had many conversations with both sets of parents, the clergy and others. On the one hand, it made sense to place the boys in different classes because that would prevent the same issues and resulting disruptions from arising at religious school and would be in the best interest of everyone’s learning. On the other hand, Josh, a somewhat socially awkward child, believed Sam to be his friend and felt comfortable with him. Placing them in class together would enable Josh to have a more positive experience.
A synagogue, and by extension, religious school, is a place that should embody and teach Jewish values and ideals. I don’t know if putting two children like Josh and Sam in the same class does more harm than good. I don’t believe we need to protect our children from making new friends. Dr. Weissbourd’s wording may be a clue to the best path. What takes precedence—our children’s happiness or their goodness? And could their goodness lead to more happiness? It’s worth asking ourselves those questions and thinking about the underlying messages our actions are sending.
Sara L. Blumstein, RJE is the Director of Congregational Learning at East End Temple in New York.