I’m usually too busy with the day-to-day of parenting to stop and reflect much on how the mother-I-am compares to the mother-I-thought-I-would-be. Like a lot of people (I hope, back me up here, folks), when I was single, I was very confident about what was good parenting and what was not.
Once, back in my single days, I was babysitting for a family and playing a game with the 4-year-old, who lied to my face about some small thing. I don’t even remember what it was. But I remember thinking, “Oh, poor family. This kid is obviously a total sociopath. And the mom thinks he’s so nice! She’s clearly in denial.”
Fast forward to this year and I find myself each Friday afternoon stopping into a Speedway so I can get my kids a Speedy Freeze (it’s like a Slurpee). This includes my 20-month-old, who I serve first, so he will be content inhaling his own drink while I help my other kids fill their 22-ounce plastic containers with that icy sugary goodness that will leave them wired and slightly frenzied.
Why am I doing this, giving my four small children something which is certainly not healthy and will potentially make my afternoon more hectic? Because I am bribing them. I am bribing them for their observance of Jewish stuff.
And I don’t feel bad about this at all.
It can be complicated to raise observant children when I myself came to observance later in life. When I was learning about and implementing ritual parts of Jewish life, my observance was often filled with awe and excitement.
Like, “Wow, saying these morning blessings lets me start my day with such awareness and connection! I love Judaism!!!” That’s a simplified version of my experience, but you get the drift.
Not so for my kids.
For my kids, saying Shema can be like brushing their teeth. Making a blessing on food can be like washing their hands with soap after using the bathroom. And just like brushing teeth and post-bathroom hand washing can be a pain in the neck to get in the habit of, so too, Jewish observance requires consistency and, well, consistency.
The difference, in my experience, is that the Jewish stuff that my children are learning to do is something that I want them to have positive associations with, something that isn’t viewed as just another chore, but as a way to connect to age-old traditions, and yes, to God.
I am terrified of the idea of me trying to be consistent about some facet of Jewish observance and my kids hating it, hating me, hating everything. You know? That’s like, the opposite of what I want to accomplish.
So while I will totally double-down on getting them to brush their teeth and not feel bad if I have to be a little not nice about it, I tread very lightly on the Jewish observance stuff. One of my mentors and friends, Ruchi Koval, advised me to be strict with my kids on the mitzvot (commandments) between man and their fellow man (like not being a jerk, for instance), but to be more laid back about the ones between man and God (like washing hands before eating bread). And that approach really speaks to me.
But then I also realized that there are certain things that I would like my children to be in the habit of, things like washing negel vasser in the morning, a ritual hand-washing that is done right when we wake up.
I had been chill about it, and some of my less compliant kids had been categorically refusing to do it. And while I didn’t make an issue of them not doing it, I definitely wanted them to develop the habit of doing it, sooner rather than later.
So, in a flash of inspiration, I decided to give them an incentive. But it needed to be something big, something that would really make it worth their while. On the few occasions where my two oldest kids had consumed Slurpies, they had been super excited about it. I decided to go with that.
When I revealed to them that if they washed their hands every morning for a whole week, I would take them for Slurpies after school on Friday, they were in shock. And then they were very, very excited.
The first couple days were smooth sailing, but then, as anticipated, some resistance set in. Thankfully, all I had to do when a child was putting up resistance was to say something along the lines of, “Well, I guess you don’t want a Slurpie this week…” and the child in question would wash their hands, even if it was done somewhat grudgingly.
This all started a few months ago, and now my kids are all washing their hands in the mornings without any fuss (bli ain hara, poo poo poo).
Even just a year or so ago, I would have been appalled if anyone would have told me that I would be bribing my kids to do something like this. In my naive, idealistic view, I would have wanted my children to connect to their tradition purely on their own, in a meaningful way, not through some sort of lure.
And I hope that when they get older, they will find a meaningful, thoughtful connection.
But for now, it’s my responsibility to lay the foundation for them and to help them develop the habits and routines that come with this Jewish observance that I am teaching them. So however they practice Judaism in their adult life, this framework will be there for them. And by then they can buy their own Slurpies.