The story of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah (Midrash Tehillim 92:13) crawling on his hands and knees playing with his children is one of my favorite Parenting Through a Jewish Lens texts. We know from adolescent psychology that the early teen years are a replay in some ways of years two-four. How you interact with your children when they are three will have a lot to do with how they interact with you when they are thirteen. This is one of the reasons Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe argued forcefully against spanking or other physical punishment as a disciplinary technique with young children. If we want our children to speak with us about their lives when they are thirteen we need to demonstrate that we care what they have to say when they are three.
One of the best ways to show this caring and respect is to play with our children. I remember being shocked by the reaction of a colleague of mine when he came over for dinner one Shabbat evening and found my two boys standing on my back while I crawled on hands and knees playing "Elephant." He said in a straightforward way, "Oh, you play with your children." Of course there are different ways of playing with our children. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with or able to engage in rough physical play. The important thing is to play because play is an essential part of a child's world. Play is how children learn. Rabbi Israel Salanter (d. 1883) taught that when you take away a boat from a young child playing in a bathtub it feels as if that boat sank. I can't vouch for the psychological accuracy of that statement, but Rabbi Salanter is trying to teach us that play is serious business for children. We show respect to our children by playing with them.
Our PTJL group at Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury is blessed to have parents of teenagers as well as parents of toddlers. We get to hear about both ends of the spectrum. The wisdom of playing with our children was attested to by a parent of a 16-year-old girl. This mother told the group that after a fun few minutes of silliness with her daughter her daughter called out, "Mom, that's the 15% of you that I like." When we show the playful, silly sides of ourselves to our children, they get the message that we are safe to have fun with. Of course, we need to balance play and the more serious business of discipline and guidance. However, I am not worried about us being overly serious in our parenting. Let's learn from our rabbis and bring in some play.
Rabbi David Jaffe
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens instructor
Mashgiach Ruchani/School Chaplain