I’m concerned about a difference between my husband and me regarding “encouraging” the children to do mitzvot. He takes the hard approach, while I take a softer, more sensitive approach. For example, when the kids want to sleep in on Shabbat after a long week I tend to empathize with them and argue that they need to rest. But he’ll encourage them to get out of bed in order to go to shul. Or again, recently, on Shavuot, I didn’t think they needed to go learning into the wee hours of the morning, but my husband was insistent that they could and should do it for as long as they can stay up. What is the correct approach?
I empathize with your position toward being sensitive to your children’s material and physical health and well-being. I’m sure your husband is very proud of you in that regard, and appreciates how much love and concern you invest in them and in caring for their needs.
However, as I’m sure you also recognize, their spiritual and Jewish education is of no less importance to their upbringing. And just as you want to do all you can to ensure that they will grow up to be physically healthy and stable, you want them to be Jewishly strong and stable adults as well.
Many people think that children need to be raised physically healthy first, providing for their material needs during their younger years, while postponing their religious education and observance until they get older and become young adults. This is a mistake.
Just as the food we provide for our children is with the knowledge that it’s precisely that which is needed for them to grow into healthy adults, so too with religiosity. Their spiritual strength and stability as adults depends on what we provide for them and the habits which we instill in them when they are children. And just as we would not forgo their essential needs in childhood with the approach that they will receive them later in life, so we must not forgo their spiritual needs with the idea that they will acquire them later. If so, they will grow with spiritual deficiencies that cannot be made up for later.
So, in cases such as you mention, while it could be counter-productive to force a child to wake up in order to pray, or to push himself to learn beyond his normal capacity, it is still a good thing to convince him through the normal parenting tools of punishment and reward, where the latter is obviously preferable but the former is not unthinkable.
And from your description it sounds like your husband has a healthy approach of strong encouragement, short of outright coercion. In these instances, generous incentives are also very helpful. For instance, you could prepare special reward-cards to give the children when they go to shul, which can later be redeemed for a prize. And in an instance such as Shavuot, it’s a once-in-a-year event which a child can be made to feel proud and grown-up about, and instill within him positive, motivational memories for an entire lifetime.
So, while your concerns are valid, their benefit is primarily short-term, while in the long-term such an approach can be harmful in that it can breed laziness and fear of challenges. And while an approach that responsibly pushes children beyond their childish comfort zone may seem initially harmful, in the long run it’s much better for them in that it teaches them fortitude, consistency and self-sacrifice for important values, particularly regarding Yiddishkeit.
Thus, the approach you espouse may seem empathetic and sensitive, but could possibly be uncompassionate if it causes long-term, irreparable harm to the children you think you’re helping. Conversely, an approach like your husband’s (when not overly-severe) might seem callous, but is actually a great compassion on children since it prepares and empowers them to face the myriad challenges of life.
All of this can be succinctly stated from a Torah teaching regarding two different manifestations of mercy mentioned in ancient sources. The one is referred to as a mother’s mercy, and the other as a father’s. (This is based on a general difference between men and women, but of course, a woman may act according to a “father’s mercy”, and a man according to a “mother’s mercy”.)
Regarding the famine suffered after the destruction of the Temple, the verse states that for food, “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children” (Lamentations 4:10). This is an extreme form of how a person, out of concern to preserve material life, could thereby “devour” the children he ostensibly loves. However, when calling for Divine mercy we ask