[Haveil Havalim is here!]
I am no expert on pedagogy; my kids are young enough that the Rebbetzin and I are still freeloading off of genetics and circumstance rather than earning our keep.
Still, I had to wonder a few weeks ago when the father down the table at a parent-child learning program [not a program of ours] shouted at his young son – I’d guess five years old – to properly and consistently identify and combine Hebrew letters and their vowels. The peremptory demands went on for about 40 minutes, “Do it!” “Read this!” “This time without mistakes!” and so on. The reading task itself didn’t appear overly taxing, and the child neither cried nor appeared particularly embarrassed, but the parent’s stentorian tone was just so harsh that I couldn’t see how this was a good educational method.
The father reminded me of soccer parents, gymnast parents and the like, putting their very young children through rigorous programs in the hopes of developing some germ of talent.
He also reminded me of Jewish parents’ attempts to start their kids very young, in programs exposing the kids to intensive Torah study, memorization and ritual. It’s an approach that Time Magazine once dubbed Kinder-Grind. A friend once described to me a program in which six-year olds memorize perakim of mishnayos. Another friend sends his child to a program in which the kids are given very little break time, spending long hours both during school and afterwards drilling in text, text and more text.
It feels like a desperate hunt for the next iluy, an anxious search for the Gadol in the family. The philosophy is really not that different from the approach that leads parents to choose preschool programs with an eye toward university admissions, or to try their toddlers on everything from violin to calculus in an attempt to identify the prodigy that must be lurking inside.
But, to me, inculcating Judaism should be different.
Torah is religion, not intellectual discipline. Yes, certainly, intellectual accomplishment in Torah study is part of Jewish excellence. But where the child who grows up resenting his math teacher will still be able to do math, and the child who grows up resenting his swim instructor can choose to walk away from swimming without penalty, a child who grows up resenting his parent or rebbe may know a lot of Torah and still walk away from Judaism as a whole, the best intentions of his mentors notwithstanding.
I'm very familiar with the passages of gemara that talk about starting kids young. And maybe I’m entirely off-base; as I said, the kid didn’t seem to be suffering. Still, and despite my pedagogic ignorance, I'd rather see kids grow up happy and well-adjusted and physically fit, and needing to work extra-hard in 5th-8th grade to pack in the knowledge, than see kids grow up stuffed with both knowledge and resentment.