Sunday, October 11, 2015

Teaching Kids How to Think, Not What to Think

"Is Hashem real?"

It was a few months ago, during supper. My oldest, who's eight, put another forkful of food in her mouth and looked at me expectantly. My mind raced, trying to come up with a good way to answer the unexpected question.

"What do you think? I asked, both curious about her answer and stalling for time to think.

"I don't think so." She answered. "I think Hashem is like, someone from a story."

Recovering from the surprise of a fundamental theological question from my third grader, asked apropos of nothing between bites of mashed potatoes, I realized that I should handle it like I'd been handling the lesser religious questions my kids occasionally asked. Tell her about the different answers different people might give, along with age-appropriate explanations, and let her think about it.

"Some people think that." I said. "Other people think that He's real. You're teachers probably think that He's real."

She gave me a look that said, "No way!"

"Grandma and Grandpa think He's real, and so do Oma and Opa."

She laughed.

"They do." My wife chimed in.

"Some people think Hashem isn't real." I continued. "And some people aren't sure."

"What do you think?" My daughter asked.

I avoided the question. "Some people believe Hashem is real because that's what they were taught, or because that's what their family's believed for a long time, or because they think  He does stuff for them, or because they think they can prove it. Other people think there isn't any reason to think He's real. What do you think?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I still think Hashem is a story."

"Why'd you ask?" I asked.

She shrugged again, and went back to her supper.

Teaching my kids about religion gets complicated, most of all because my wife is a believer and I'm not, but also because I don't want to teach my kids what to think. I want to teach them how to think. About everything, not just religion. When one kid comes crying to me that another won't share a toy, or pushed her off the couch, or won't play what she wants to play, or hit her ("It was an ACCIDENT!") I don't just yell at the one who's in the wrong. Well, to be honest, sometimes I do, when I'm really busy or haven't had enough sleep or the kids just won't. Stop. Whining! But most of the time, I try to get each to think about what the situation felt like from the other's point of view, to understand why what she did was wrong, and to come up with a solution together. I want them to understand why they should or shouldn't do things, and to be able to think through a problem and come up with a solution. Not to just see A as good and B as bad because Mommy and Daddy said so.

I hit upon the present-the-range-of-views way of handling religious questions a little over a year ago, when we got new neighbors. A Lubavitch family with girls the same ages as my daughters moved in on our block. There aren't many kids on our street,  and my girls were delighted to have new playmates. About a month after they moved in, we were sitting around the fire pit in the backyard roasting marshmallows when my daughter asked, "What's tznius?"

I explained to her that tznius was how certain people thought people were supposed to dress and act in public, and that there are widely varying ideas of what was acceptable. She thought it was hilarious that nudists walk around naked, and so weird that someone would cover themselves completely in a burka before going outside.

Broad and fundamental religious questions don't come up too often. While religion is one of my favorite topics, and I often discuss it with friends or bore my wife talking about it, my kids don't pay much attention. They're more interested in their toys than the boring conversations the adults are having. Nor do my wife and I talk about it much to the kids. Religion in our house tends to be ritualistic rather than inspirational. We wash our hands and say hamotzie to thank Hashem, but we don't thank Him for finding a parking space. We don't say things like, "Baruch Hashem," or, "Bli ayin hara." To my kids, religion is about going to shul on Shabbos to eat candy and play with their friends, decorating the Succah, and the, "Hashem is here, Hashem is there…" version of God they picked up in school.

I encourage my kids to think about what they learn in school, usually by asking them questions to get them to think about it instead of just parroting it back. If Hashem is, "truly everywhere," does that mean He's in the food you're eating? Does He watch you  in the bathroom? Eww!

What to teach your kids when you're a skeptic raising children in a frum community is an often-discussed topic (or was, back when the blogosphere had more discussions). My solution has been to teach my kids how to think, not what, and to provide them with the tools and perspective to evaluate what they learn, whether in school or at home. They're still too young to really think independently, but I hope as they get older, as they learn more and as I'm able to teach them logic and critical thinking, they'll grow into people able to evaluate claims and to think for themselves. At that point, they'll make their own decisions about religion (and everything else), and I'll be proud of them for making up their own minds, whatever those decisions may be.


  1. Out of the mouth of babes. We adults can learn much from them. Anyway we must not only teach critical thinking skills, but provide information and facts to help them along.

  2. The state religious torani schools ("mamlachti dati torani* in Hebrew) here in Israel excel at telling kids what to think, not teaching them how to think. This drives me batty. Our oldest boy (almost 19, in the army) barely managed to survive six years in a state religious torani primary school, where he didn't fit in & for which I still kick myself for sending him to such a place. When he was in 1st grade, the boys (girls were in a separate building) had an assembly in which they received their first siddur. Each kid had about 20 seconds to say what his wish was. I thought I was in a room full of African Grey Parrots. Every single kid, except one, said either what some adult told them to say or what they thought some adult wanted to hear: "I want to learn hard and make my parents proud" or "I want Mashiach and the 3rd Temple to come" or "I want Hashem to end all the terrorist attacks." Like that. So what did our kid say? He gave my wife & I the please-don't-get-angry-at-me look, hesitated for a second & then said, "I want my Daddy to come home earlier from the office." Everyone looked at us. I was so proud of him I wanted to burst. I wanted to jump up and shout, "See?! My son is NOT a robot and you people will not make him into one!!!" But I didn't (my wife would have clobbered me). But I wanted to; I still want to.

    A child who can think or her/himself is the most holy & precious thing in the world.

  3. So G*3, do you believe in the Written Torah or not? It says to teach it to your children and talk about it all the time. Deut 11:19. You will be doing your children great disservice if they will end up not believing in it. I was misfortunate like that so I would not wish that upon my children. Otherwise, I am all for curiosity and open-mind. Information should not be restricted. Especially from children.

    1. No, I don't believe in the Torah.

    2. What exactly you do not believe into?

    3. I do not believe that there is any such a thing as a God.
      I not believe that, even if He were real, there is sufficient reason to think that He gave the Torah to the Bnie Yisroel at Har Sinia.
      I do not beleive that, even if God was real and He gave the Torah on HAr Sinia, there is sufficient reason to think that the text we have today is the same one He gave.

    4. Well, existence of One God was proven by Big Bang theory. It basically says that everything came out of one source. Sure, science has not confirmed that it was some intelligent being, even though some research indicates that (i.e human sperm design). How do you define God? I am obviously not talking about some bearded guy up there, although God does have human form as Torah states.

      God indeed gave Torah to us because Abraham believed in Him. The reason why Abraham believed in God was because Abraham was a very smart man. And no, God did not give anything else besides Written Torah. God did not give any "oral torahs" to the Jews because it is not on the list of the things that God gave and because we know that it is a man-made work.

      Yes, the text is corrupted but the basic stuff was preserved so Torah can be reconstructed imho. 10 commandments are most certainly the same so what exactly is the problem?

  4. I have 6 children. Our family is "frum." I went to yeshiva day schools, beis medresh and have simicha. After a long and tumultuous journey, I have become agnostic at best. After much exploration and research, I have come to the conclusion that almost all that I have been taught is a myth.

    The painful quandary in which I find myself is how to proceed. I have a wife who I love and cherish who is a "true believer" I have one son who is in a modern orthodox high school and a daughter in Bais Yaakov.

    I am desperately looking for guidance on how to handle:

    *Being “stuck” in an environment (frum community and an observant home) where I constantly have to confront my religious conflicts.

    *Feeling I am not properly protecting our children from harmful indoctrination and fear of, when they grow up, if and how they will handle the revelation that this was all a sham.

    *Feeling safe enough in my relationship with my wife to trust sharing my beliefs/feelings even though I know they are contrary to wife's and will cause her pain.
    ***And should the above aspiration (my relationship with my wife) really be a goal? Is it realistic? Will it really help the relationship? Do we really need to share everything with each other? On the other hand is it really possible to keep this particular issue compartmentalized from our relationship?

    *Acknowledging that the solution is not convincing or changing the other’s beliefs or behaviors but finding a common ground that will allow coexistence without compromising the relationship and its growth. IS THIS POSSIBLE?

    Any advice or anecdotal information would be truly appreciated.


      Rabbis are teaching a lie, which is Oral Torah(aka Talmud, aka Mishna/Gemarah). What rabbis teach IS NOT in the Written Torah!!!

      Please check out my blog:
      There, I explain how to live according to the Torah, but without any crazy religious bullshit and inline with MODERN way of life. Written Torah fits into modern life beautifully! It is the rabbis that messed up the whole thing!!!

      Do you know that even the calendar that rabbis use in not based on the Torah?!? Check out my blog. I wrote it specifically for people like you.

      You can be with God and do not have to be afraid or ashamed!!!

      To answer your questions:

      ALWAYS BE HONEST with your wife!. She is your other half. If you do not trust her, you can't trust yourself either. She will either support you or leave you. If she leaves, let her. Let her continue to be a religious nut!!!


      Contact me on my blog for more information if you are interested.


      Aleksandr Sigalov

    2. First a disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I can only tell you what's worked for me, or what I've heard from others.

      > *Being “stuck” in an environment (frum community and an observant home) where I constantly have to confront my religious conflicts.

      Could you elaborate? What kind of community do you live in? Do you mind keeping mitzvos? Are there any you really don't like, and if so, can you avoid them? I live in a LWMO community, and for the most part, no one cares what other people do. I find that most things I'm so used I don't notice keeping them, and those few things that I really don't like, I don't do.

      > *Feeling I am not properly protecting our children from harmful indoctrination and fear of, when they grow up, if and how they will handle the revelation that this was all a sham.

      I think this may be an "absolute truth" problem. If the value of a Jewish education is in the absolute truth of Judaism, then discovering that Judaism probably isn't true can be disturbing. If it has value in itself, if you can plant the idea in your kids that what they're being taught may not be objective truth, but there is still value in it, then if/when they discover the truth, it may be less of a shock.

      > *Feeling safe enough in my relationship with my wife to trust sharing my beliefs/feelings even though I know they are contrary to wife's and will cause her pain.

      Knowing nothing about your relationship, I can't say. I do know several couples who are religiously mismatched, including one where the wife is a BT and the husband isn't Jewish, and they make it work. I think that telling the truth is usually the best way to go, but again, that depends on you relationship. I think that it's far better for her to hear about what you think from you then for her to discover that you're reading kefirah or, if it comes to it, not keeping Shabbos or kashrus.

      The big question is whether or not people are allowed to change in the middle of a marriage. There seems to be a sense that if one got married with certain understandings, such as that you would have a frum household, then you're bound to maintain the starting conditions unless both spouses agree to a change. Yet that doesn't seem to hold true if one spouse becomes a BT. Then the other spouse is expected to put up with having a kosher home, their spouse no longer going on family outings on Shabbos, and even Niddah.

      I think there is some merit to the idea that if people went into a marriage with certain expectations, those things shouldn't be changed unilaterally, but I also think it is reasonable to expect some accommodation to changes over time.

      > *Acknowledging that the solution is not convincing or changing the other’s beliefs or behaviors but finding a common ground that will allow coexistence without compromising the relationship and its growth. IS THIS POSSIBLE?

      Sure. Whether it's possible for *you* depends on what you and you're wife are like and what your relationship is like.

  5. Hey, Anon. Like G*3, I'm not an expert on faith transitions, but I know a fair amount about 'em and I wanted to put in my two cents:

    1) The way you phrased your last question -- "Acknowledging that the solution is not convincing or changing the other's behavior..." -- is GREAT. The fact that you realize this puts you MILES ahead of most people in your situation, and is a good sign for the future of your relationship.

    2) G*3 is wise! He's got his head screwed on straight, as they say. Talk to the man. :)

    3) You know what? Here, have a third cent! Faith transitions can be lonely, and they're MUCH easier with some social support. Depending where you live, there are probably some meet-up groups for OTD folk close by. I'd encourage you to check those out as soon as you feel ready, or even a little bit BEFORE you do. Finding people who understand what you're going through is a godsend. Uh... so to speak.

    If you can't find an OTD group near you, or if you're worried you might be spotted associating with the wrong crowd, I have another suggestion -- but you know what? Instead of overloading you with advice, I'll just say that I'm rooting for you and I hope you DO engage with G*3. Good luck, Anon! The Internet is pullin' for ya. :)