I vaguely remember learning about object permanence in an undergrad course on child development. But I never realized how much this concept would play into my son’s earliest Jewish experiences.
My now 10-month-old son attends a weekly Hebrew immersion Shabbat class with our nanny. After the first class, our nanny shared with me that the other caregivers bring money to put into a tzedakah box. The class sings a Hebrew song mentioning each child’s name as they place tzedakah money into the giant box. So now, as part of my Friday morning routine, after packing my pump parts and finalizing the Shabbat menu, I place a dollar bill into a plastic snack bag and leave it out for them to take to Shabbat class.
At his second class, everything went smoothly tzedakah-wise. But by the third class, things began to go downhill. Object permanence kicked in and tzedakah time become fraught with despair. Each week, he holds onto the bill and refuses to give it up, letting out a piercing cry in the process. Our nanny says it’s gotten worse over time. She ends up quickly placing the money into the box on his behalf.
He’s a baby — of course he doesn’t like giving up a treasured object. But the thing is, it’s not just babies who have a hard time parting with what they have. While watching a video of my son screaming during his turn to part with the dollar bill, I can’t help but think of the metaphor here for giving tzedakah. The Torah teaches us to “open your hand” to give to the needy among us. But even when we’ve got the money ready to go, opening our hand to give to others does not always come easy.
I’ve also had a hard time letting go of things, even as an adult. Like the giant treadmill that sat in our one-bedroom apartment until a few weeks ago. I hadn’t used it in months, but I also refused to part with it, even when our baby came along. Yet once my son started crawling, it just had to go. Giving up that treadmill seemed like letting go of a part of me (the part of me that had time for exercise and self-care) but I knew my son needed more space to move around. So while it was hard to say goodbye to running at home, I valued the opportunity to donate the treadmill to a family who will use it, who could not afford to buy one on their own.
That’s the kind of thought process that I hope becomes natural for my son. How can my husband and I help him go from the (understandably primal) place he is at now to a place where he values giving to others, even though it requires him to let go of something he has? How do we instill in our son a sense of Jewish and social responsibility in a world of consumerism and self-interest?
My hope is that we will help him along by continuing to model our own tzedakah giving—be it placing coins into the tzedakah box anytime we use cash and perhaps by involving him in the excitement of pushing the final click to “donate now” as he gets older.
When I think about the values we hope to instill in our son, it makes me think about a recent moment at the Jewish day school where I work, Schechter Westchester. A kindergartner lost his first tooth and received money from the tooth fairy. He proudly came into school the very next day and placed all of that money into his classroom’s tzedakah box.
While our son’s first tooth is barely showing, we hope that by the time it falls out, he will have a similar wish to share that money with someone in need. We believe that to help him get there it’s never too early to start modeling and reinforcing the blessings and challenges of giving.