There is an old cliché that carries a lot of truth during this time of lockdown and coronavirus: too much of a good thing. Yes, we love our partners and our kids, but we could hardly imagine that we would be spending so much time with them.
Yes, being a parent is full of love and joy, but, even under the best circumstances, it is also full of confusion, exhaustion, and exasperation — what I call the “oys” of parenting. Being a parent might be the most difficult thing anyone volunteers to do, and now that we no longer have space in our lives — physical space, emotional space, and psychological space — the challenges are even greater.
It’s in these tough moments that we need the most hope — the hope that as parents, we won’t just do our jobs but we’ll do them well, and raise children who will make good lives for themselves and will also leave the world a better place. While that won’t be determined fully by what happens during the Covid-19 crisis, it does give us a chance to make some choices now that we may want to continue once the pandemic has passed.
After all, joy in parenting — those precious moments of what many Jews refer to as nachas, or parental pride — doesn’t have to wait for stay-at-home orders to expire: There are joys and proud “parenting moments” that we can hold on to and cherish right now. That starts with delighting in our children, whenever and wherever possible. When we are able to delight in our children, we are better able to focus on the greater goal: guiding them into becoming competent and productive adults.
Fortunately, Judaism offers us clear direction and specific principles for raising children into successful, productive, confident, secure, and charitable adults. There are many ways Jewish teachings as a guide for raising our children — something my colleagues and I explore in-depth in our book, The Joys & Oys of Parenting — but it all begins with the concept of shalom bayit, a peaceful home.
Creating a secure, peaceful home is particularly important in a time of threat and uncertainty, like now. So many families have been affected by Covid-19, directly or indirectly, and this has created an understandable increase in anxiety among adults and children. Fortunately, a big step toward alleviating this tension is as simple as creating a schedule and establishing routines. Here are some stress-free ways to create more shalom bayit in your home, both during lockdown and beyond.
1. Eat together.
It’s that simple. Your meals don’t have to be fancy, or pretty, or even all that peaceful. Sometimes, when families are home together for so much of the time, as many are now, there is a temptation to eat at separate times. But the act of spending set time together can have a big impact on our children. So, be sure to plan at least some regular time for all to sit around the table and share some thoughts, like a highlight of each person’s day.
Try the game “Roses and Thorns,” where each person takes a turn describing a good thing that happened that day (their “rose”) and a low moment or tough problem they had to deal with (their “thorn”). It’s more important than ever to keep some sense of balance, even amidst sad news around many of us.
2. Acknowledge the gifts of food and each other.
Offering a blessing or expression of thanks before and after eating can separate mealtime from the rest of our day — it makes us feel better, too. It’s a way of reminding us of all we do for others. This works whether we are appreciating the person who delivered the groceries, the person who cooked the meal, the Creator of all life, and more. Discuss all the details of how the food arrived at your table, so children come to understand the extensive supply chains that they — and we — depend on and, often, are part of.
3. Create a spirit of cooperation.
Mention how important it is for everyone to pitch in and help the family routines. Then create an informal chart of basic tasks (taking stuff out of the fridge or pantry, setting the table, clearing the dishes, putting foodstuffs away) that clarifies day-to-day responsibilities. When kids see that their actions are recognized on a chart, accompanied by appreciative words, that’s often enough to reinforce these positive behaviors. This spirit of cooperation applies to other aspects of maintaining a household. Involve various family members in laundry, straightening up, and keeping one’s own room reasonably orderly. Once the tasks are completed, make time for family fun if you can.
4. Read together, especially at bedtime.
Reading with children of all ages is an excellent way to connect and share something personal: the gift of imagination. Encouraging an older child to read to a younger child will benefit both. Books should be age-appropriate, but don’t necessarily need to be short or simple. Reading one chapter a night is a great way to continue a dialogue with our kids and gives everyone something to look forward to at the end of each day. Set these limits ahead of time, so everyone knows when story time will end, avoiding any negotiation or conflict at the end of the day. Virtual reading with grandparents and other family members who are not in one’s home is especially valuable in these times of the coronavirus.
5. Express gratitude.
Tell your children what you are thankful for each day, and encourage them to do the same. Can they name three positive moments, or their top moment of the day? This counts even when we are together a lot and think we know what our family members will say. You may be surprised by what you hear! Cultivate appreciation for small things and everyday things, in the spirit of curiosity. Talking about what we’re grateful for is especially important in times like these, when we might be tempted to see the glass as two-thirds empty rather than one-third full.
6. Choose your words carefully.
A house of shalom bayit is one in which people think carefully about the words they use with other members of the family. For parents in particular, under the close conditions we likely find ourselves in, there will be an almost inevitable tendency to lose our cool and say some things we should not have said. So be ready to apologize. Even if you think your reaction was justified, consider carefully the words you used. At the end of the day, if not before, don’t hesitate to sit with your kids (or partner!) and say, “Earlier, when I said X, I was speaking in anger. I did not mean those words and I apologize for saying them. I was upset about what happened but should not have spoken as I did. I will try to do better next time.”
The essence of shalom bayit is to be considerate of others’ feelings, so that our house is a safe and caring place. We will not be perfect at it. However, our tradition teaches us that even though we will not complete a task, it is still our responsibility to keep working on it. That was good advice then, and it is still good advice now!
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