Sunday, July 27, 2014

Parents as Partners

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

Since Jews arrived on the great shores of the United States of America, Orthodox parents have worried about how to successfully transmit the values and practices of a rich Halakhic life to the next generation of American Jewish children. Of course, as the generations have passed, Jews have been increasingly accepted into American society. We and our children see ourselves as fully integrated into the surrounding culture, and freedom abounds. And with increased freedom and integration comes deep challenges. With each successive generation comes more choice, more comfort, greater freedoms. Religious transmission is more difficult than ever to achieve.

Or so we thought. In 2013, Vern Bengston, professor at the University of Southern California, along with two colleagues, published the results of a thirty five year study in which he interviewed over 3500 people spanning four generations of each interviewed family, exploring the challenges and successes of religious transmission in the U.S. (Here is a link  to the description of the book) The team interviewed members representing the major religions in the country. Some of the results were surprising while others confirmed our common sense. I share with you a few of the highlights.
  • The three religions most successful at transmitting their values to the next generation: Mormons (highest), Jews and Evangelical Christians, the so called "high boundary" religions. 
  • The team was surprised to find that 6 of 10 children follow in their parents religious footsteps, something they considered to be a high rate of success. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the high boundary religions did not see that statistic as very successful; the Evangelical minister quoted in the study focused on the 40%, the cup half empty, rather than on the success. We can relate...
  • Most importantly: the rate of success of families in transmitting their values to the next generation has not changed over the generations. That means that although we might think that kids don't listen to their parents as much as they used to, that is not the case when it comes to religious transmission. Today's children are following in the footsteps of their parents to the same degree that they did in the previous two generations. In fact, although there are more "nones" (non believers) than there were in the previous generation, even the nones, in a high percentage of cases, have actually internalized the skepticism or atheism of their parents; atheism, too, can be transmitted to the next generation!
Those are some interesting stats. Undoubtedly his most important conclusion: Family matters! Although many people think that family has less influence than in the past, Bergston concludes that family matters today as much as it ever has. Some children internalize family values immediately and others take a more circuitous route. But parents (and grandparents) are of crucial importance to religious transmission.

What elements are crucial for successful religious transmission? Here are three important elements that the team highlights:
  1. Parental warmth is key: Supportive, loving and present (i.e, available and not distracted) parents are crucial to successful transmission. (And “warm” does not mean “soft” or overly tolerant) This is not directly related to religious issues. Rather, warm parenting in general is, on its own, important for religious transmission. That's what makes it so powerful. The percentage of successful transmission decreases when parents are pressured to be less attentive because of financial difficulty, marital strife or illness. These are not always in our control. But it speaks to how diligent we need to be even during our most challenging times. 
  2. Role modeling, actual practice, is of great significance. Children internalize what they see their parents doing. The obvious corollary: hypocrisy is a big turn off for kids. 
  3. Striking the balance - too much parental pressure backfires; too little does not communicate the value or behavior. It is not easy to strike the balance but parents must be careful to watch for signs of either extreme. 
So what does this mean for us?

For me, as an educator, this study highlights the importance of school and family working together as we strive for religious growth for our children. Both school and family are dedicated to transmitting the values of a rich Jewish life to our children. We have shared aspirations for our kids. And the three key elements mentioned above are as crucial for teachers and administrators as they are for parents. For me, this points in the direction of increased partnership, of shared strategy and dialogue between home and school around the issue of religious transmission.

But we don’t talk to each other nearly enough about the successes and the real challenges of transmission. We talk about teachers and grades and curriculum. We talk about college and yeshivot in Israel. We talk about our new tefilah program or the new Beit Midrash curriculum. And all these are important parts of the puzzle. But we don’t yet talk to each other in a deep and trusting way, sharing our strategies, challenges and hesitations of religious transmission. Sometimes, a teacher or administrator in a school (any school) will say, “if the child’s parents would only….” No less often, parents might say “I wish the school would…”

Let’s take tefilah as an example. In school, we have our structures: we try our different minyanim, we teach the meaning of tefillot. We gather for hallel and we encourage students to daven three times a day. And parents have structures of meaning too: parents walk to shul with their children, daven with them, some remind their children to daven on the weekend, some push their children to go to minyan. This is something that is important, in a wide variety of ways to many of us.

But we have no opportunity to talk about it. To learn from each other. To build together.

Here’s what I think we should try: we should structure a dialogue, a “slightly-less-grand conversation” where small groups of parents and staff meet to talk to each other about tefilah. I imagine 10-15 people around a table in someone’s home, reading a shared text as a springboard to conversation about tefilah. And we talk. How do WE engage tefilah? What is OUR practice? What are OUR beliefs and hesitations? How many times a Shabbat do we go to shul? What do we expect of our children? How has that shaped the ways that we interact with our kids, as parents and teachers, around tefilah? How much do we push our kids to daven? Do we think it is their decision as to how to engage or ours to teach them how to engage?

There would be much to discuss. I suspect there would be enough to keep us going for a lifetime. It is something that goes to the heart of our Jewish beings. And we are so accustomed to attending classes and learning texts, of going to shiurim and listening to the rabbi, that we do not have opportunity to talk to each other, draw strength from each other, lean on each other, complement each other and develop a stronger shared mission and strategy to best achieve, as a community, the religious transmission that we strive to build.

Our intuition, I think, tells us this: when we work together, when we problem solve together, when we talk, we are that much stronger. What I am suggesting: I propose the idea of “communities of dialogue”, small groups to talk about both theory and practice, adults and children, texts and contexts, about tefilah and about other issues of religious transmission. I think it will make us stronger.

What do you think?