Monday, February 9, 2009

They're Your Children You Say?

A reader who wishes to stay anonymous has been having an ongoing email conversation with Sefardi Lady at Orthonomics and with me. The topic of the conversation is that soon to be parent's fear as to who will be more influential with his as yet unborn child: himself, and his wife, or the schools the child will go to. In particular this gentleman has no desire to see his child fall into what he sees as the "I'll sit and learn and you will support me and my family" trap. He wants his child to see work as both necessary and as worthwhile. He fears that he will not be able to overcome the influence of the schools, and yes, parts of the community as well. He asks if it is even possible to be foremost in one's child's life today. Basically, his fears hinge on the question of whose hashkafah shall be dominant in a child's life: a school's hashkafah or the family's hashkafah.

I only wish that there were some easy answer to give this reader. He is first going to be facing a problem that some of us have been wrestling with for a while. It boils down to one simple question: whose children are they? Common sense would require that we say that children "belong" to their parents. Our government concurs with this answer for the most part. Children are the responsibility of their parents, and only parents can make decisions for their minor children--unless you cross certain lines. If you choose to abuse your children, if you choose to starve your children, if you refuse to provide any kind of education for your children, then the government can and will step in. Those areas where the government can choose to act in are those that protect the physical/mental welfare of the child when that welfare falls below minimally acceptable social guidelines.

But it is not any kind of governmental meddling that worries my reader; it is meddling of a different kind. Schools somehow come to develop a particular hashkafah, a modus operendi if you will. The worldview represented by this hashkafah organizes and colors every act of the school. There are rebbaim who guide the school in establishing the hashkafah, who are the halachic advisors that help shape the hashkafah. For the most part, every act of the yeshiva, every decision, hinges on how well that action or decision supports the school's hashkafah.

And then there are parents. Parents also work under a particular hashkafah. A family hashkafah comes into existence under many influences. Parents may be continuing the hashkafah they themselves were raised under by their parents. They may bring into their family elements of the hashkafot of the schools they attended. They may bring in elements of their shul and its rabbi's hashkafah. They may read and study and bring in elements from the things they have studied. They may observe others and adopt/adapt elements of the hashkafahs these people live under.

Now what happens when a child, raised in a family with hashkafah X, enters into a school with hashkafah Y? In a very few schools there is not much of a clash. What the school says is while the student is physically in the school building that child needs to follow the rules set down by the school, but out of school is not the school's concern; that concern belongs to the parents. Of course, these schools teach according to hashkafah Y, but they don't make a fetish out of telling the student that only hashkafah Y has merit. Would they prefer that a student adopt the school's hashkafah as their own? Sure they would, but they don't make a major issue out of it.

And then there are the other schools. These schools do not consider themselves successful unless they have not only presented the school hashkafah to the students, but that the students have adopted the school's hashkafah as their own, with no exceptions. They consider it as part of their duty to introduce the students to the "true" hashkafah. Are they aware that students come from a wide variety of homes with varying hashkafahs in those homes? Sure, and for the most part they don't care. These schools take the attitude that hashkafah setting is not the purview of parents; hashkafah setting falls under the rubric of school responsibility. Not only do they expect students to toe the hashkafah line while in school, but they expect the students to toe that same hashkafah line when outside of school. They expect that students will observe school hashkafah when at home. And they expect that parents will fall in line with the school's hashkafah as well. Note: some schools get around the hashkafah conflict by not admitting any students who do not already follow all or most of the school's hashkafah.

So what is a parent supposed to do? Abdicate all parental responsibility and hand it over to the schools? The schools wouldn't mind, except, of course, for those "minor" issues of paying tuition, feeding and clothing the student, taking care of any medical issues, paying for the required school activities, paying for weddings and then supporting couples where the husband is sitting and learning. They magnanimously "allow" parents to be a part of these things, as long as how these things are done follow the school hashkafah.

Let's look at a couple of areas of conflict where school and parental haskafahs may differ. Parents may feel that knowing about the Internet and being able to navigate it are in line with their hashkafah. They are aware of the pitfalls and have in place house rules that keep their children from going online to places not acceptable to the parents. The school where the parents send their children has a different hashkafah; the Internet is treif, full stop. The parents feel that what goes on in the house is their business to decide; the school feels that what goes on in the house is its business to decide. The child is caught in the middle between two warring parties. Substitute television for the Internet and you have another common war ground. Substitute secular reading material and you have yet another conflict. Substitute going to college and the war continues.

And then there is my reader's concern: work. What are parents to do when a school's hashkafah allows it to denigrate those who work, where the hashkafah says that only sitting and learning for as long as possible is acceptable? Working parents will try and instill in their children the idea that work is both honorable and necessary. They will point out to their children that it is working that allows the money to come in that pays for all necessities, including schooling. They will point out that no school could survive if there were no working parents. They will point to the numerous tzedaka organizations that could not function if there were not working people with the money to support the organizations. They will point to themselves as examples of people who are committed to Yiddishkeit, who are frum but who work as part of their hashkafah. And maybe they will be successful with their children---and maybe they won't be. Because the schools will counter with yes, there are working parents, and it is the responsibility of these parents to see to it that their children don't have to work, so that they can sit and learn. It is the responsibility of parents to support children ki l'olam chasdoh.

And then parents will have to patiently explain to their children that there is a flaw in the school's reasoning. If parent's have the responsibility to support their grown and married children, then whose responsibility is it to support those children's children? Following the school's logic would say that it is the parents of those children who need to support them. But those parents are not working, so how will they support them? So now the original parents are supposed to be supporting three generations. (Co-tangentially, the same schools that argue that grandparents can and should be supporting three generations also argue that retirement is not a "frum" concept. These are the same schools that are not concerned in any way, shape or form with the very real concerns of what services our communities are going to have to provide for an aging older generation.) At this point any "logic" on the part of the schools' argument falls apart. Unless you are Baron von Rothschild, you aren't going to be able to support two generations on one generation's income, never mind three generations.

If parents patiently explain this to their children they just might be successful in having the children see that parental hashkafah is the better choice in this case. But I wouldn't count on it. The schools have our children for more hours during the day than we do. There is more opportunity for them to present "their side." Then there is peer pressure, which the schools count on. Children have a need to fit in with their peers. If their peers are pressuring them to follow the school's mission, to head off to Israel, to sit and learn while their parents support them, then the parents are fighting the battle on two fronts.

So what can parents do? Any or all of the following:
1. They can look at their hashkafah and decide on which points they do not want to compromise, and then pick a school that fits in with those points. It may mean picking a school that is more to the left than their basic hashkafah. It may mean heading more towards Modern Orthodoxy rather than to the right.

2. They can pick communities to live in that are more in line with their own hashkafah, or communities that have many hashkafahs represented and where the community members live in harmony, accepting that there are many hashkafahs.

3. They can choose as personal friends those whose hashkafahs are the same or similar to their own. In this way their children will see that it is not only their parents who hold a particular view but others as well.

4. They can be fully involved parents, spending as much time as is possible with their children, and representing themselves as the model they want their children to follow. They are going to need to start when the children are still young and be consistent in their message as the children grow older. They cannot throw up their hands and say "There is nothing I can do to counteract the school's message."

5. This point can be hard for parents: sometimes, no matter what you do or say, your children are going to be different from you. It then becomes the parents' responsibility to say: "Fine, you have chosen the derech you want to go on. Just understand that it is YOUR derech, not ours, and that you will have to support yourself if you choose this route."

I am not being facetious when I say that I am very thankful that my children are grown up and that I do not have this to contend with now. And I wish my reader hatzlachah as he begins his parenting life. Any other pointers that readers can give as to how they balance the war of the hashkafahs would be appreciated.


Ita said...

A question--were our children ever only ours? Isn't this conflict with schools something that has been there all along?

Re the working parents, we tell our children that kibud av v'aim trumps most things and the fact that my husband and I both work should be bringing us more kovod not less. When our children finish a meal they bentsch. And then my husband has pointed out that they also owe a thank you to us for working and providing the food they eat.

JS said...

Very good post.

For the most part, when a parent enters this situation with their eyes open, they deserve what they get when they simply follow the herd and don't make active, conscious decisions regarding their children's education. To clarify, I am talking about parents who have the ability to know what they're getting themselves into, not parents who are, for example, baal teshuvas and don't understand what the school will do to their children.

This defeatist attitude kills me. THEY'RE YOUR CHILDREN!!! Don't just sit there and sigh and throw your hands in the air and say "Oh well, what can you do?" You don't HAVE to send your kids to a school that will brainwash them. You don't HAVE to send your kids to a boarding school where you will never see them. You don't HAVE to send them anywhere you don't want. Maybe this will require moving and doing some real research, but they're YOUR kids and if you don't want this type of outcome you're going to have to work and sacrifice to avoid it.

I think it's key to pick the right community and the right school. It's not essential that everyone think like you, but it IS essential that people have a "live and let live" attitude towards hashkafa. Perhaps equally important, if not more so, is spending time with your kids. I can't stress this enough. It's nobody's fault but your own if your kids find role models and people they look up to outside of the home. It's one thing to admire a rabbi or teacher, but one should respect and honor and look up to one's parents first and foremost. That means building a real relationship with your children built on love, respect, and trust. If this isn't done, there's little you can do since your children are spending their formative years in schools. And before you know it, they'll be teenagers who will think they know everything and become incredibly obstinate in pursuit of what they are 100% without a doubt convinced is the only way to do things.

You also need to be willing to stand up to peer pressure, school pressure, and communal pressure. I would note that EVERY school (yes, even modern orthodox) and EVERY community has pressures. They may be financial to throw lavish weddings, brises, etc. They may be political to vote a certain way. They may be religious. You need to be willing to stand up and say "No." You don't have to be confrontational, but you do have to be resolute.

My parents didn't have the money to send us to Israel after yeshiva. They were also worried about a rash of stories in our community of children coming home from yeshiva in Israel and not eating in their parents' homes anymore, etc. Me and my siblings all went to a MO yeshiva. Even there, the pressure was intense to go to Israel. Rabbis, principals, friends all kept asking why I wouldn't go. But, we all had strong relationships with our parents and knew the situation and didn't fight them (too much) on the issue. There are people trying to undermine you every step of the way (for example, several rabbis said they would put together the money for me to go) - you just need to be stronger.

The important thing to realize is that you are the parent, you're raising your kid, not anyone else. They're just there to help out.

G6 said...

Great comprehensive post.
There are of course, no simple answers.
I'm not sure that putting children in a more modern environment is the best choice though, unless the more right wing schools in your neighborhood will simply not accept the children with internet and/or TV in their homes.
I can tell you what worked for us (so far, and with the help of Hashem it should continue):
Don't just teach and espouse your hashkafah to your children but live it - and do so unapologetically but without aggression or scorn.
Give your children something to admire and wish to emulate.

Ariella said...

And what about schools in lesser-popualted areas, for example, where they hashkafa might not be good enough - forget about "brainwashing"? What about schools that teach kids things YOU don't want your kids doing - that TV is ok, that co-ed education is ok, that shomer negia isn't important, that pants are fine - what then? The pendulum swings both ways.

Pick a school you feel comfortable with and keep this in mind: it's your own fault when you send your kids to a school you undermine at every step. Then no one wins.

Pick a school and STICK WITH IT. The whole "yeshiva/derech eretz" crises is of the parents OWN making. If you undermine the school your children and attend and belittle their teachers, they don't learn respect from you OR the school, and they get mixed messages. Support the school in mentoring and teaching your children - that's why you send them there in the first place.

Lion of Zion said...


JS above is right. most parents know *exactly* what they are getting themselves into.

i am amazed by how much we complain about about something that is completely under our control.

and you left out one other option for parents. instead of readers complaining in the comments here, they should take some other likeminded parents--i guarantee they're not alone--and pay a visit to the principal's office.

Mike S. said...

The main thing is to teach yourself and your children to act in accordance with your beliefs and values, even when it is not popular. It is not always possible to send your child to a school whose hashkafa you agree with. Sometimes other considerations matter; I sent one of my children to a school whose hashkafa I disagreed with because poor management of the school he had been going to (and to which his siblings continued to go) was having a serious negative impact on his education.

SephardiLady said...

Ariella makes an important point about supporting the school and its mentoring. For us the issue of which to school to pick came down to a belief in the educational and disciplinary methods (or, in the latter case, sometimes lack thereof).

I feel the school should be an extention of the home in terms of expectations, academic and behavioral, and in the case of certain choices I did not believe that I could support their approach, despite all the wonderful marketing, and so we made a different choice.

Rae said...

Interesting that both Ariella and SL talked about not undermining the school your kids are in. But what about when the school undermines the family? I thought that was the anonymous reader's worry?

Let's also get real here. It is rare to find a school that will match everything you want. Schools are always a matter of compromise. Sometimes you don't have a choice about what school to send to--it may be the only school in town. Sometimes the commute to a different school may be just too long for a child to have to do twice each day. Sometimes it's the price of the school. Whatever the compromise is, we all have to make them. The question is not of undermining a school but of holding on to your own hashkafah. If there is a conflict between what you hold and what the school holds, why should the school automatically come first, especially if the conflict involves things that happen in the home?

The schools where my kids started out were not the best fit for us hashkafah wise but our best choice would have meant moving, which we couldn't do then, or commuting the kids about 40 miles each direction. We didn't tell our local school to change but we did show our kids what was acceptable for our house. The impetus to move to a different community finally happened when the school told one of our kids that what we were doing in the house was wrong and against halacha--had to do with our having cable television.

Was the new school perfect? No, but there were fewer areas where there was going to be conflict between what the kids saw at home and what they saw in school. And there were more people like us in the new community so the kids didn't have to feel like the odd man out.

Lion of Zion said...

" Sometimes you don't have a choice about what school to send to"

Another strike for out-of-town life

SephardiLady said...

Rae-I completely sympathize with the person who wrote ProfK and me. No matter what school a parent puts their child in, public or private, so long as schools view their role as more than imparting the 3 r's, there are going to be conflicts between the school and parents.

Ideally, I think a parent should look for a school that they see as an extention of the home educationally and in discipline. Ariella's sentiments obviously echoed with me.

How hard is that? Well, as a parent who had to look good and hard for a school that reflected our goals in education, I can say it wasn't easy in the least.

Toby said...

Lion, you don't have to be out of town to not have a school in your local community that fits you or to not have a choice. Plenty of communities in the tri-state area where the local school just isn't what you would really want. When we first got married we lived on the lower East side of Manhattan because we could afford our apartment and because it was close to both of our jobs with public transport. And no, the schools available when we had our first were not what we would have chosen if we could have chosen from all the schools in the NYC area. But who in their right mind commutes a three or four year old from Manhattan to Queens? Or even a 6 year old? We ended up buying a home in NJ. Our commute got longer but the choice for the kids was better--better but not totally perfect.

Rae said...

SL, and what would you have done if you couldn't find that school that was an exact match to what you wanted in education and discipline? Would you have moved out of your community? Sometimes that really is not a choice. I stand behind my statement that no school is the "perfect" choice and that parents have to know that and prepare themselves to explain to their kids where the differences are between the home and the school and why.

Jason said...

I read this posting with some interest. I am traditional rather than religious and perhaps I'm seeing something else in the posting and comment thread. It seems to me that all (some?) of the readers are applying democratic ideals to the schooling situation. There seems to be the idea of equality between the school and the home that is missing, and that some parents want. But any religious institution, regardless of the religion, is not built on democratic principles. Religions are authoritarian by design and by nature. There is a hierarchy of authority. In such a hierarchy the Rabbis who interpret the laws are at the top. Then come the schools. Parents rank lower than the schools. It seems to me that some of the problem may be in trying to apply democratic ideas to an area--religious schooling--that doesn't run on democratic principles.

Sarah said...

I have the definite feeling Lion of Zion that you have never actually lived out of town. Those who have and who still do have gotten used to the barbs sent our way by New Yorkers who haven't got even part of clue of what real out of town living is like. Is out of town living like being in Gan Eden? No, not 100%, but then living in NY isn't either.

I've lived in NY and out of it and for my money, out of New York wins hands down. NY doesn't even come close. My kids think of visiting New York the same as going to the zoo--lots of interesting animals and thank God they don't live in my house, or my town either.

SephardiLady said...

Rae-Agree with you that moving isn't always a solution. My parents were always correcting my papers when they thought teachers were not holding up their end. And when they thought the message was inappropriate, they told me what they thought.

This is the job of a parent. I'd probably do the same or just opt to find an alternative arrangement if the battle was too uphill. I'm not afraid of going against the grain.

And I'm sure I will have to follow through because while I think the elementary that we have chosen is fantastic, the high school choices are seriously lacking.

Rae said...

You brought up a great point SL. At some point parents can have children in elementary school and children in high school. It may not be that both schools make you equally happy.(And if you have your kids in separate sex schools then you are talking possibly four schools, not two.) I don't think that moving to accomodate one part of your family while disturbing the other part is the answer. Sometimes you can get stuck with schools that don't meet everything that you think you should be there because of other schools for your other kids that do.

That's when parents really have to work hard to make up for any deficits in a school and when they even have to explain why there is a difference between the school and the home. We were not as happy with the high school available for my son as we were with his elementary school. But we refused to send a high schooler to a dorm school. So he stayed locally and we had to make up for any deficit in the secular learning. There were a few of us like that and we pooled our skills and knowledge and grouped the four boys for the extra work. The grouping helped because they didn't feel like they were the only ones getting something different.

Lion of Zion said...


i didn't throw any barbs at OOT. i was simply observing that schooling options are generally more limited in OOT communities.