In her recent Kveller article, Danielle Shapiro talks about the struggles of bringing her 4-year-old twins to a Tot Shabbat service. She writes, “For the rabbi whose service we disrupted, and the parents who heard our screaming, running children, and for the lady who I cut ahead of in the buffet line to get nuggets—all I have to say is I’m sorry, we have twins.”
As a rabbi who works with children and families, I appreciate parents who want their children to behave and engage in our programming. As a parent of young children, I want my children to behave reasonably every time we leave the house. But I also know those are wishes, not realities.
I write to say this to Danielle Shapiro, and to all those who cringed with her: Don’t apologize. Don’t feel badly that your kids were trying to climb on the bima or to drink the juice before the blessing. These are normal 2-year-old behaviors. They are expected.
Let me tell you, my own children do them, too. At a Hanukkah event last month, my 3-year-old screamed and ran under a table because I would not let him have a third jelly donut. And my 1-year-old will climb any set of stairs she sees, especially the ones leading to the bima, all while shrieking with delight at her stair-climbing prowess. For the most part, I can accept that they do this because this is what children do, although there are times when I want to hide from embarrassment or exhaustion or both.
My own experience, as both a rabbi and a mother, tells me that if you are ever in a tot service where you are made to feel uncomfortable because your children are behaving like children, then you are in the wrong service. When we plan these services, we know kids will be running around and that no one will wait their turn in the food line. We know that there will be noise and interruptions and kids (and parents) who are hungry and tired and over-excited.
The purpose of a tot family service is to create a place where parents and children feel comfortable being in the synagogue. This is how children, and their parents, learn that there is a place for them in what might seem like a forbidding space. Tot services are designed to help children feel at home in the synagogue, to start to learn the norms, customs, and celebrations that make Judaism meaningful. And as they grow, young congregants will incorporate their early childhood experiences into their experiences as children, teenagers, and finally adults. My son still sings the tunes he learned in preschool and understands the arc of the Shabbat service from his time in Tot Shabbat.
These early childhood services are the building blocks of their Jewish identity. Please don’t stay away for fear that they will act like children.
Now, of course there are some limits. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t watch your kids, or that they should be allowed to run in circles and scream while you chat in the back. Allowing your kids to do whatever they want without any intervention doesn’t accomplish the goals of going to Tot Shabbat and other family programming—and I always worry that the kid causing a ruckus will be turn out to be mine (and that fear is sometimes realized). But when your kids express excitement by running to the front to sing with us, or display just a little too much eagerness to get to the food, it shows me that they feel at home in our space.
So, parents of twins, of toddlers, of babies, of crawlers, of runners, any parents who feel like they can’t come to synagogue because their kids won’t behave: Don’t stay away. We need you. We need your kids, with all their energy, and their chocolate-and grape-juice-covered fingers. They are our future, and we want to welcome them now. We need them to feel at home in the synagogue, and I hope that their parents will feel that way too.