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Stressed About School? Here’s What Your Kids Really Need to Learn This Year.

I admit it. My typically sunny nature has been chipped away by six months of hunkering down, not seeing my parents or siblings in person, dealing with anxiety, disappointments, and wearing masks in public (and even in my own home, around the guys tinkering with the gas valve on my ready-to-explode water heater).

In addition to some less-than-warm showers, all this extra time at home has provided ample opportunities to scroll through social media posts. On my neighborhood parents’ page on Facebook, a variety of questions pop up regarding pediatrician recommendations, drivers’ education information, and, of course, how to make sure our children’s brains are not atrophying during this hazy time of online schooling.

Just this morning, I stumbled across a question about a series of books that provide guidelines for well-educated children in each grade. Now, let me be clear: I’m all in when it comes to introducing second graders to Japanese culture, ancient Greek mythology, and Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad. And yet, I found myself talking back to my computer. In addition to being able to count to 100, shouldn’t second graders also know to offer a warm hello to a new kid at school? Shouldn’t second graders know that you must ask for permission before touching someone’s fluffy pet? They should also know that when trick-or-treating with friends, you don’t run ahead and abandon your pal if your fellow superhero’s shoelace gets untied.

Yes, children should learn how to tell time — that’s an important life skill. But they should also learn that when parents are on the telephone or in a meeting on the computer, they should only interrupt in case of an emergency. They should learn that not everyone looks like them, talks like them, eats like them, or dresses like them. Second graders should know that you don’t distract the driver of a car and that you don’t take clean water, air, land, or other resources for granted.

Yes, knowing that Zeus is not the name of a shampoo is fantastic, but it doesn’t negate knowing that you don’t slip your friend’s glittery bracelet with the little toe shoe charm into your pocket on a playdate. You can be “well educated” and also a jerk. As parents, our goal should be to raise children who are well educated and as well as humans who care about improving the planet and the lives of others.

My family moved to our community because of its incredible commitment to public schooling and education. I am grateful for the opportunities that my kids’ teachers have provided for them to learn and grow. Sometimes, though, amid all of the Google Meetups about remote and in-person learning, and the focus on skill attainment and pouring in information to our young receptacles of knowledge, it’s too easy to forget that education is also about nurturing children’s hearts.

Rabbi Leib Saras, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism, used to say that he did not go to the rabbi to learn the interpretations of Torah. Rather, he said went to the rabbi to watch the way he tied his shoelaces. Especially in the 1700s, well before velcro was a thing, tying a shoelace (or any sort of knot, really) was a pretty vital skill. But Saras, also acknowledged that the way someone applied teaching and learning was crucial. How do we handle the humdrum details of our everyday lives? Are we sloppy or careful? How do we treat other people around us when we must excuse ourselves for a moment to lean over to tie a shoelace? How do we respond when we are interrupted by a shoelace that won’t remain tied? A person’s character reveals itself in unexpected moments.

A new school year is about to start — or has already started — for so many families in the U.S. Synchronous, asynchronous, online, remote, hybrid, pod-based, outdoor, indoor… whatever or however you name it, there are apparently many models of a pandemic education. Before giving yourself an ulcer about whether or not you can explain to your child how magnets work (because, you know, someone thinks that’s what Harvard-bound 8-year-olds should know), remember that the most important lessons you can teach your children happen when they watch you tie your own metaphorical shoelaces.

This is a time of profound physical and emotional isolation. For people with underlying health concerns, every human interaction is laced with potential illness and even the threat of death. Joblessness, anxiety, racial tension, and fear about the future swirl around us. Now is the perfect time to show our children the importance of compassion, gentleness, and humanity. A kind word, phone call, or grocery delivery has never meant so much to an older, housebound grandparent or friend. These are the lessons that this upside-down year screams to be taught.

So, if you are planning on giving even a modest donation to elderly shut-ins at the start of the Jewish New Year, be sure that your kids know (or, better yet, involve them in the process!). If you demonstrate one welcomes a new neighbor with a note or a cake; if you are kind to the people around you — and yourself — and if you involve them in your voting; then you are teaching your kids the most profound lessons of all: showing respect to seniors, welcoming the stranger, greeting people we know and people we have not met, taking care of the vulnerable. These are values from our Jewish tradition that keep the fabric of our society whole.

A child who learns to ask questions and who loves figuring things out can always learn about magnets or math concepts. This year, let’s teach our kids how to tie our spiritual shoelaces with curiosity, grace, compassion, and flair, because that’s what every second grader, and fourth grader, and grown up needs to know, so that no one gets left behind.

Header Image by syntika/ Getty Images 

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