I am no parenting expert. At the time of this writing, my oldest has just turned a whopping four years old, and while precocious, does not yet require the type of engagement and attention necessary for school-aged children. And yet, looking ahead, I realize that raising thoughtful children in today’s over stimulated, entertainment craving world requires a bit more attention than in the past, and it’s never too early to start planning an approach.
As Jews, we need to look no further for the greatest parenting aid than the day of Connection, our beloved Shabbat. We have a critical ingredient in the recipe for success right here in our backyard. 25 hours of media blackout has the potential for helping to create a radiant home with deep, unbreakable relationships, if done right. Emphasis on if done right. The Shabbat table can and should be a highlight of a family’s week, but it requires preparation and strategy. Having the forethought to create an inspiring and stimulating Shabbat table is no simple task. And yet, there are few opportunities more conducive to reaching our children and transmitting our values.
Below are some nifty ideas I have collected for creating an exciting, kid-friendly Shabbat meal. Reader beware: Some of these ideas are unconventional. But sometimes you need to think out of the box, especially if the contents of the box have not been working for your family.
1. Let your kids choose the menu.
It may surprise you if the traditional Shabbat foods are not up there on your family’s lists of favorites. Step number one to enjoying a meal is to like the food. So rethink your choice of cuisine. It may mean (gasp) getting rid of the gefilte fish and matza balls and serving meat pie, but hey, I won’t tell.
If not every week, at least you can implement something similar to what my mother did when we were growing up. Every child, on the Shabbat closest to his or her birthday, had the opportunity to choose the full menu for each of the meals. Some of my warmest childhood memories come from the meals when my entire family ate the special chicken recipe that I loved.
Another variation of this is theme-based Shabbat meals. Task the artistic troops with decorating and setting the table, and involve others in the preparation of the correspondent food. Turn your dining room into a Mexican fiesta or a Hawaiian luau. Break out the dancing and party it up!
2. Choose a stimulating discussion topic and have a family debate.
If you can’t come up with a topic, find one in print, be it a thought-provoking book, a weekly email, or even your synagogue’s take-home newsletter. There are so many stimulating topics out there to get you thinking; all you have to do is choose. Choose teams, divvy up the issues and stage a debate, GOP style (rhetoric and political bashing optional).
My father regularly reads from a book of fascinating halachik queries. Each member of the family answers the question to the best of his knowledge, and it makes for some fierce moral arguments. Provocative discussion sheets created for this purpose can be found on yutorah.org.
3. Keep the meal short and the discussion relevant.
You want your kids to stay at the table through the Shabbat meal. That’s the proper honor due to the Shabbat after all. So you tell them they can’t have dessert unless they sit through it all, your guest’s political dissertation included. And then you wonder why they end up hating Shabbat.
Keep the meal within the ambit of your kids’ attention span. The courses should move. You can discuss your brilliant insight into the Talmud a different time. And that discussion about your guest’s work in his CPA firm? Later.
4. Assign a presentation.
Some children like presenting a Torah thought. Others are natural actors. Some may have a piece of art or writing they are proud of. Grab the opportunity with the family together and attentive to have a child highlight some of his recent activities, and to make a fun presentation. Hold a “press conference” in which the child answers questions to “reporters” about this and other aspects of his or her week. Or have them plan a short skit about that week’s Torah portion.
5. Learn a new Jewish song.
Ever thought of having a theme song for your family? My family has a code whistle. Teach an upbeat song that not many people know. Then sing it on family trips and use it to identify one another from afar. Or create a Shabbat orchestra with banging clapping, whistling, singing and harmony. For those not musically inclined, there’s always the option of a chant, cheerleader style.
6. Choose your guests wisely.
In his book “Aishel”, Dr. Meir Wikler tells stories of how families’ lives were changed by a guest they hosted. More important than the chessed you do for others is your responsibility to your spouse and children. A guest can make or break the family Shabbat experience. You don’t have to invite that guy who makes you uncomfortable, just because he needs a place to eat. When inviting guests, consider how your kids will take to them. Some folks can keep children (and adults) spellbound with their fascinating lives and stories. Are your guests the type to engage others in a positive way? Do they have a particular job, culture, or history that can add spice to your table?
7. Hand out prizes.
Common Jewish practice is to distribute candy and small presents at the Passover seder to bolster engagement. Why limit it to Passover? Reward good questions and participation with special “Shabbat treats”. I looked forward to Shabbat the entire week when I was a child, because it meant I could go downstairs to my parents’ home-based candy store and pick out two favorite treats after my mother lit the Shabbat candles. I have seen my father-in-law’s dining room becomes a marshmallow war zone. An ingenious father whose table I frequented in Israel threw his kids cheap plastic toys by the dozen after they answered parsha questions. Throw manners to the wind and let the prizes rain down! Your kids will remember it for life.
8. Involve the family in Shabbat preparations.
As a kid, my job every Friday was to chill and prepare the beverages for the entire Shabbat. Soda, juice, wine for Kiddush, and beer and spirits for the adults. Children with culinary ambitions can prepare dishes; let them receive the adulation of the family and guests when served- it’s awesome for their self-image. Even if their workplace of choice is not the kitchen, there are always things that can involve them if you strategize. The Shabbat meal becomes a source of pride for a child when he or she invests effort and thought into its arrangement. Many families use checklists and charts to involve their brood in Shabbat-making activities. Figure out what works best for your clan and get them involved!