Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kinder-Grind, Jewish style?

[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.


  1. In Jewish book stores one finds many books written about how the Gedolim started off as genius kids who were born with good Middot. In many schools kids are taught about how the Gedolim started off as genius kids who were born with good Middot. We don't find many stories about Gedolim who started off playing baseball during school breaks. Is it possible that we have chosen the wrong role models? I am not saying that those Gedolim who started out with extraordinary lives do not deserve our respect, but can the typical child or teenager relate to someone like that?

    Perhaps this is why many parents act like the parent described in the article?

  2. The old saying goes "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." It applies to how to deal with children as well, children being the operative word.

    First establish the love of doing, the love of knowing, the desire to know. Where one loves, committment is sure to follow and remain. But when committment has been pushed first,and harshly, when others believe that love and liking will follow if hard work and committment come first, well it sounds like a recipe for a bad marriage to me.

    There's also this--when parents push for results, and in a negative fashion, it's sometimes more about the parent's self image then it is about a desire for the child to love to do something, to want to do it. If a child does not commit to X or Y or Z, and a parent is committed to those things, the parents frequently see this as a bad reflection on themselves, having nothing to do really with who the child is or what they need.

  3. I wish the schools (particularly 'all boys') would subscribe to your philosophy.

  4. Marc-
    Yes, I do believe that this is a major influence. I feel it in my own parenting.

    Yes; I think I've posted elsewhere about the way parents sometimes personalize things, seeing themselves as the center, when it's not true.

    Anon 9:45 AM-
    Thanks, I think. I'm just not sure I'm right.

  5. We often say "Chanoch l'naar al pi darco" but the reality is that children are too often forced to conform to "cookie cutter molds."

  6. My experience has been that if a child has a talent for something, parents will never need to push it. If a kid loves music, you won't be able to keep them away from it. I have seen my own kids grow into learning for it's own sake, without ever being forced, pushed, or even reminded.

    I am skeptical about parent-child learning, particularly when it is mandatory. It seems to me that the families that enjoy learning together already do so, and those families where it becomes a source of conflict or disappointment, maybe should not.

  7. Rabbi Torczyner,

    I completely agree with you regarding the way the parent was acting towards his child. One difference I do have, though, has to do with a more tangential point in your post. I actually think that memorization at a young age can be a good thing. I visited a number of schools in Israel that utilized Rabbi Eliyahu Zilberman's shinnun method that encourages memorization of Tanakh. We have many mekorot in our tradition that encourage such memorization, which allows the general mood and tenor of the text to become a permanent feature of the child's personality.

  8. You seem to associate "packing children with knowledge" with unhappiness and concentration-camp model of discipline. That association does not necessarily have to exist.

    The reason why some parents attempt to teach children everything, from violin to soccer, is to maximize the children's inner world and allow them to find out what they are good at, what they enjoy, and what means of expressing themselves they will be happiest with. All of this does not require any rigid discipline. It does require dislike of mediocrity — first of all by the parents themselves.

  9. Laya-
    Thanks for your comments. I do see a middle ground on both of your points, though:
    1. Talent will not come out if the opportunity is not there; parents do no need to create serious opportunities, I believe.
    2. I think you'd agree that there can be mandatory programming that does not create conflict/disappointment?

    Absolutely agreed. From what I know of developmental neuropsychology (which isn't much), the brain is actually better wired for memorization than for deductive logic at that age.

    I don't see them as the same, no. However, the instance I witnessed and described - a father barking at his son for 40 minutes or so - was such a case. I believe that maximizing opportunity is important (see my reply to Laya), but not maximizing responsibility at a too-young age.

  10. This post reminded me of one of my favorite stories:

    Rabbi Hillel Goldberg relates an incident involving Rav Yitzchok Hutner. He had observed a father disciplining his son to daven. Every time the child would get up or divert his attention, the father sternly redirected him. It was a battle.

    "What are you doing?" Rav Hutner asked the father.

    "I'm teaching my son to daven!" answered the father.

    "No, you're not," said Rav Hutner. "You're teaching your son to grow up to tell his own son to be quiet, to sit down, to pay attention,... If you want to teach your son to daven, then daven!"

    (story is from:

  11. Great story, Neil. I'll have to keep that one in mind for myself.

  12. I do think we should start teaching them early, but teaching them WHAT? How about values, stories, concepts, key Hebrew words, cycles of Jewish time, all the things that become the foundation for their later textual knowledge. The toddler already knows that any money he finds outside a parent's wallet needs to be put in the tzedakah jar, that we put aside toys and clothes we no longer need for others who don't have enough. He knows the rhythms of Jewish life, and the sounds (if not always the meanings) of basic blessings and prayers.

    Of course, he also knows that Hebrew letter magnets fit nicely UNDER the refrigerator, so we're still working on some things. ;)

  13. Tzipporah-
    I'm into teaching them skills - both text skills and life skills (aka manners). My hope is to give them the tools that will be useful to them down the road...

  14. RH - yes, manners are key life skills.

    The toddler (now 3 years old) has been making giant leaps in recognizing English letters and connecting them to sounds, and I've been hesitant to muck that up by introducing too much Hebrew until he can read English. Especially since I'm (optimistically) at a 2nd or 3rd grade Hebrew reading level myself.

    How did you handle 2 languages? At what age did your kids start learning Hebrew versus English text?

  15. Tzipporah-
    Each child was exposed to it early on (1-2 yrs) and took to it at different rates. Depends on the child, and depends on the child's relationship with older siblings...