I have two young children and worry that they are too wild to bring to Shabbat morning services. My experiences in the past have been very negative, and it usually keeps me home, even though I do crave community. What advice do you have?
Scared to Join In
You and your children deserve a place at Shabbat services, and not just at the kiddie-table but at the real live deal. I was so sure that I knew who authored this question because of a recent discussion with a friend struggling through the same dilemma. When I realized it did not come from her, I saw even more clearly how important and commonly felt your question is, and I want to thank you for this thoughtful note.
My first reaction - that you should absolutely bring your children to services! - is so strong that I am certain it is an over simplification, and I want to catch myself and be sure to address the layers of concern in your inquiry.
First, yes, I do believe that the ideal when creating community is to have room for people of all ages, abilities and needs; I was filled with great pride at our last Saturday morning service when I saw - and heard - a dozen kids and babies - playing, crying, being present - while the grown-ups participated in the service. Dan and I believe that when children see their parents engaged and inspired in acts of prayer and ritual they too will find connection and meaning in these acts. So, quite simply, they need to be present for that to happen.
But I know that the pressures on a parent to have well behaved kids who will not cause a ‘scene’ are enormous. And, though, there is a lot of recent attention about inclusion in the Jewish community, I have witnessed how some institutions react when a child does not fit into the ‘normal’ scope of behavior and the frustration, shame and anxiety that affects the whole family when they feel this judgement.
I think the underlying struggle here is how to re-enter a space where you have previously had a negative experience, and that is very hard. Scared, I’m not sure whether you are talking about a shrieking child running through the space and chucking the coffee cups and bagels on the floor - my son likes to do that, or more serious examples of disruption, but my response is the same in either case: You should bring your kids into the type of community in which you want to be a part. It is our job - not just the parents - but as Jews, to embrace and take care of one another. You may feel vulnerable doing this, but don’t be scared. We all feel this way - for one reason or another - in such settings where we open ourselves and our families to something beyond our own lives.
Kids, from what I have seen as a parent (of two under five) and as an observer in a community, all have their moments being incredibly misbehaved. And, let me be honest here, if the behavior of another child - and this has of course happened - affect my kids in a negative way, I am not happy. It is very difficult for me to reach inward, in such moments, and remind myself that it is my obligation to treat that child - and their parents - with the same empathy and understanding that I would want extended to myself and my own family. (I hope it goes without saying, I am not talking about violence or defamation of one’s character or spirit, which of course do demand a different set of intervention).
We all need to do better; putting ourselves in vulnerable spaces and receiving those around us. If you haven’t found a setting where you can do this, then keep looking. Communities of worship are aspirational, and I have failed to live up to several aspirations, but creating sacred space which includes my children and the children of anyone who wants to participate in prayer and Jewish ritual is something that I will keep striving towards. It may be messy, but you always have a spot at my table.