We used to love Shabbat in our home. When my daughter was 2 years old we sang “Penny in the Pushke” while she put coins in the
(charity) box, swayed together to “Moving into Shabbos Time,” kvelled to watch her mirror her Ima’s motions for candle lighting, and melted when we rested our hands on her head to bless her. She loved the taste of grape juice and tearing a big hunk of challah when we finished HaMotzi (the blessing for bread). Every Friday evening felt richly relaxed.
Then our daughter turned 3, and our peaceful Shabbats steadily declined. She grew less patient with the blessings. She pulled on the challah so early the HaMotzi became “baruch ata… NOT YET… eloheinu… WAIT, DON’T PULL… HaOlam, HaMotzi–HEY, BRING THAT BACK!” She whined throughout the blessing over the wine, demanding to hold the grape juice herself. She had to be monitored every moment to not drink early or move in a way that would splash and stain. Our long musical Kiddush (blessing over the wine) was sung faster and faster, with less pleasure. During the meal she would dive under the table to visit our legs.
Worst of all–to us–was losing the blessing over our child. She started squirming beneath our hands, then running away until our once-intimate blessing turned into a chase around the apartment, and we were reduced to hurling the names of the matriarchs at our child’s back.
We commiserated with other parents that “Threes Are Hard” and we muddled through. But Friday evenings still made us sad, remembering what Sabbath peace felt like a year before.
We knew part of the problem was that we were all tired at the end of the week. We thought our daughter would grow out of this behavior, but as she approached 5 years old this became our Sabbath ritual, with no sign of changing. So we tried something new.
It was an unusual Friday evening: My wife was away for a bat mitzvah, so my daughter and I shared Shabbat dinner with my sister’s family. Afterward, we took the bus home, and I thought about how much we wanted Shabbat to be different. So I told her a story.
I asked her, “Do you remember your friend Hadassah?” My daughter nodded, recalling our friends’ daughter, two years her senior. Whenever we visit them my daughter follows her everywhere. I proceeded: “Do you know what Hadassah LOVES to do every Shabbat?” My daughter’s eyes grew wide with expectation. I used the slow, breathy voice reserved for Something Cool Is About To Happen.
“What?” she asked, matching my tone, playing the game.
“When her Ima and Abba are ready to give her their blessing, she sits up straight in her chair,” I demonstrated on the bus seat, “closes her eyes,” I closed mine, “takes a deep breath, and smiles to feel her Ima and Abba’s warm hands on her head.” I affected a happy face. “And then her Ima and Abba say the words of the blessing. Do you know what they mean?”
It occurred to me at that moment that we had never sat down and explained to our daughter what the prayer was about. So I told her that when we put our hands on her head we are asking for a long, healthy, and happy life for her, full of strength and good choices and wonderful things. Not an exact translation, but certainly what I always have in mind.
That evening, on the back seat of the city bus, our girl let me rest my hand on her head and offer a blessing for the first time in almost two years.
A month after the first successful blessing, I took my daughter aside an hour before we were to gather for Shabbat, and I asked her to talk with me about her grape juice. I asked her what she liked most about having her own cup for
, and she answered: being able to drink right away when the blessing was done.
I told her we wanted that for her, but also that it made us unhappy to have to ask her again and again to be careful not to spill or drink early. I said that it distracted us from enjoying the blessing. She listened carefully and I suggested a compromise. What if her cup stayed on the table until the prayer was over, and then she could pick it up right away?
“But Abba,” she said, “if the cup was on the table, that would distract ME.”
Then she suggested that her Ima could hold her cup, but only if Ima gave it to her right away when the blessing was done. We brought the proposal to my wife, who agreed. It worked like magic, and we were able to sing the Kiddush at a normal pace again, enjoying every note.
A few weeks after establishing our Kiddush blessings practice, I invited my daughter to do “official Shabbat dancing” with me, right before candle lighting. We stepped into an adjoining room, held hands, and bounced around in a small circle. We twirled until she had enough, and then I let her know this is what we do on Shabbat when we have extra energy. Going under the table is not a Shabbat thing. Instead, at any time during the meal, she could ask Abba to go dance with her, and I would.
We understand that for my daughter diving under the table is as much a tired loss of impulse control as any craving for attention or need to move her body. The dancing is helping somewhat–she sometimes remembers to ask for a spin. At least now we have a positive outlet to offer.
And what could be better than my daughter asking me to dance on Shabbat?