Other things, I am completely laissez-faire about (to the point of being labeled neglectful and/or abusive by commentators): My kids stay home alone, walk home through blizzards alone, take NYC public transportation by themselves, and eat what’s put in front of them or don’t eat at all.
Unless there’s a good reason to say no, I rarely say no. Even if I’m pretty sure what my kids have in mind will end in disaster. I am, after all, a huge proponent of failure. Which is why, when my 8-year-old daughter asked if she could lead this year’s Passover seder, I automatically said yes.
“Can I read the leader’s part in the haggadah?”
“Can I sit at the head of the table?”
“Yay! I’m going to go start getting ready!”
This was in early March. For my daughter, getting ready consisted of requisitioning the family haggadahs and proceeding to frantically pepper them with pink sticky-notes. She made schedules and seating charts, decorated a Miriam’s cup, and planned the menu.
“Are you cooking?” I asked her politely.
“Don’t be silly, Mommy.”
And that’s when I started to worry. Because in the same way that my daughter was blithely expecting to only participate in the fun parts of leading a seder while delegating the drudgery to others, I was thinking about how cute it would be for me to watch her efforts, without giving any consideration to our guests, who might not find my child as delightful as I do (I know, difficult to imagine, but I’ve heard such things are possible).
I began to worry about her rambling on and on, acting silly, frustrating our guests. One of the people scheduled to attend was actually from a pretty observant family. Would she find our letting a 2nd grader lead disrespectful? Others weren’t even Jewish. This would be their first seder. Would they be able to follow what was going on if a giggling little girl was the one doing all the talking?
Because I write a column on gifted education, I am periodically invited to speak on panels at conferences and symposiums. There, I frequently come into conflict with a section of the gifted education community who believe that children should not be held to standards of behavior based on their age, but must be able to interact with adults as peers–whether the adults appreciate it or not. I believe that it doesn’t matter what your child’s IQ is or how much they might know about a given topic, a young person needs to address an older person with respect. (I was once chastised by an educator who overheard me telling my son that no matter how intelligent he was, I would always be smarter than him, due to life experience. Said educator predicted that I would shatter my son’s self-esteem and cripple his self-image.)
I realized that, with my upcoming Passover seder, I had fallen into the same trap as the people I usually disagree with. I had given a young child authority over adults. And I did it for the exact same reason they do: Because, truth be told, my 8-year-old does know more about Judaism than I do.
I was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up with parents who’d had most of their Jewish knowledge wrung out of them, courtesy of Stalin in particular, and Communism in general. I picked up things here and there once we moved to America, but the picture is incomplete and always will be. My husband isn’t Jewish, and while he is completely willing for us to have a Jewish home, there is a limit to what he can contribute. My two oldest sons have maybe a decade of spotty Hebrew School education between them. My daughter, on the other hand, goes to a Jewish day school.
When she was in kindergarten and my husband and I were invited to her Consecration Ceremony, I didn’t know what it was. My daughter solemnly promised afterward that she would teach me all about the Torah–as she learned it herself.
So what was I supposed to do? My 8-year-old really was the most qualified and knowledgeable person in the house to lead our seder. But she was also my 8-year-old. She would be the youngest person there (which made The Four Questions particularly challenging).
The compromise I came up with was I did let her lead (and sit at the head of the table–though I was still the one who did most of the cooking, with an assist from my husband). But if she started to get off-track, I redirected her. If she mispronounced a word while reading out loud, it was perfectly fine for anyone else to correct her. I told her she could not boss the adults around, but rather politely present what we were going to do next. And if an adult didn’t want to do things her way, she couldn’t force them to.
Was her self-esteem and/or self-image crippled due to my actions? Not that I can tell so far. And when it came time to hide the afikomen, I took over that duty, and let her go looking for it. Because, in the end, she’s still just a kid. And was ultimately happy to be treated as such.