On Raising Children: A Torah Perspective

    based on a Sicha by HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN, ZT”L    

When the Torah directs us to educate students – the work of schooling – it calls students ‘bonim’ or children. To an extent, the chinuch we provide in Jewish day schools is in loco parentis and an extension of the chinuch children get at home. The following essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, offers a Torah perspective on raising children.
(The selection published here is abridged from a longer essay, which can be found at https://www.etzion.org.il/en/raising-children.
Reprinted with permission from Virtual Beit Midrash – https://www.vbm-torah.org)

It should be a truism that raising children is one of the most important things in a person’s life. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to everyone. There are people, even great people, who assign a higher priority to other matters.
There is, of course, a mitzva of chinuch, educating one’s children. Yet, the term chinuch can be understood in two very distinct ways. In the narrower sense, the term chinuch refers to chinuch for mitzvot, preparing a child for a lifetime of religious observance. The Gemara (Sukka 42a) explains that when a child knows how to shake a lulav, his father should buy him one; when he knows how to properly care for his tefillin, the father buys him tefillin; when he knows how to speak, his father should teach him Torah and Shema. For each respective mitzva, when the child reaches the appropriate age, you are obligated to train him to perform that mitzva.
In a broader sense, though, chinuch has to do with the molding of the identity and personality of the child. That itself breaks into two aspects. One aspect is the development of certain spiritual strengths, certain skills, abilities, inclinations, and sensitivities. In trying to make a respectable person out of the boy or girl, the parents ask themselves: To what extent can and should we mold the child, and in which direction? Once the parents understand what the aims are, they can try to answer these questions.
There is a second, more relational aspect of the broad sense of chinuch. This entails developing what the Greeks called paideia, eliciting from the personality of the child that which is already there; moreover, this means developing not abilities, but rather attitudes, relationships, commitments, involvement, and engagement. For example, part of chinuch is teaching the child the ability to relate to others. If you look around you, you see that some people have the skill of relating to others, while others cannot relate to a colleague, a child, or a spouse. Teaching a child to “relate” does not just mean giving him or her a certain skill set in the realm of personal relationships; it also means teaching one how to relate to G-d, to one’s immediate environs, to one’s collective and national identity, to the past and future, and to the world at large. All this is part of chinuch.
Some of the aspects of chinuch that I have mentioned have a clear normative thrust; come Sukkot time, you buy the child a lulav. Others are harder to pin down, almost by definition. You can discuss what kind of skills to develop in the child, how to develop them, at what level, etc. There is room for a great range of opinion, both in the degree of priority you assign to the whole enterprise, and also to each component within it. Does this obligation, which is less easily definable, have a halachic address? Here an inevitable split will emerge: with regard to certain aspects – certainly yes; with others, possibly no.
One possible address is Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah. He opens the topic in a strange way. He does not begin with the obligation to study Torah; that arises only in halacha 8. Rather, the first halachot deal with a person’s obligation to teach – namely, to teach his children. The Torah uses the expression, “And you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children” (Devarim 6:7). Chazal explain that at one level, this refers to students, but on another level, “your children” means just what it says, your sons and daughters. This involves inculcating certain values, developing certain attitudes, seeing to it that the world of serving G-d is their world.
Clearly, this does not have as sharply defined lines or contours as does the world of chinuch l’mitzvot; it is a much broader enterprise, which has to do with what kind of commitments, what kind of values, you want the child to have. Now, part of this aspect of education is vague because the exact values are not so clear. As opposed to the aforementioned concrete mitzvot, where a lulav is a lulav is a lulav, sensitivity (to name one value) can be variable: sensitivity to what, to whom, what you tolerate, what you refuse to tolerate, etc. When dealing with defined halachic duties, people who are halachically committed will roll up their sleeves and get to work. However, when we speak to them in general terms of raising a child, giving the child values and commitments, a plethora of possibilities emerge: they can take a low-key approach, they can act intensely and intensively, they can give it a high level of priority or a low level of priority. Unfortunately, where the matters clash with other priorities, the desire to downplay chinuch may overwhelm some.
I feel very strongly about the need for personal attention in child-raising and have tried to put it into practice. I, too, was raised that way. A number of my rebbeim also used to speak of the value of learning with one’s children. The Rav once said that when one gets to Olam Haba, he is going to be asked, “Based on what do you deserve entry to Olam Haba?” Personally, he mentioned three things, one of which was that he learned with his children.
I remember a drasha that Rav Yitzchak Hutner z”l gave around Shavuot one year when I attended Yeshivat Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. He discussed the gemara in Bava Batra (21a) that “Yehoshua ben Gamla is to be remembered for the good,” because he founded a network of Jewish education. Before his time, everybody had studied with his own child or hired a private tutor, but he founded schools. The rosh yeshiva said that historians, secular historians in particular, think of this as a great event, resolving the chaos of home education with something systematic: schools, buildings, educational infrastructure. To the contrary, Rav Hutner said, it was a sad day; the ideal is to follow the literal meaning of the verse, “You shall teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19). The rosh yeshiva would frequently discuss with us the need to study with one’s son or one’s daughter, just as verse states.

According to the Rav, talmud Torah is an important aspect of the interpersonal, emotional, and existential bond between a parent and a child. When the love for Torah embraces an inter-generational link, that enhances the learning. When our first son was born in the early 1960’s, I was strongly involved with Yavneh (the national campus organization of American and Canadian religious university students) as a member of its National Advisory Board. The Rav thought that my considerable involvement might divert my energies from other, more important things. At the bris we spoke, and he quoted the verse, “For Yitzchak shall be your true offspring” (Bereishit 21:12). G-d tells Avraham: Do not worry too much about Yishmael, for Yitzchak will be your successor. What the Rav was telling me was: Remember, raising your son is the priority.
One pays a price for this attitude to child-raising. I am not telling you that were it not for my children I would be a “gaon olam,” but you pay a price. However, that is a price that you should be very well ready and willing to pay, and thank G-d every morning for the ability to pay it. Raising children is a lot of work, and it is one of the greatest joys in the world – one of the greatest responsibilities and greatest privileges. There are very few people about whom it can be genuinely be said that there is something objectively more important in their life than raising children. Every child is a world unto himself, and should be treated with sensitivity, understanding, warmth, and love.
What kind of parent are you? Do you intend the relationship to be formal or chummy? The Gemara (Kiddushin 32a) teaches that a father who foregoes the honor due him may do so; does it say anywhere whether a parent should do so? There are differences between cultures and families. When we are at home, my children can poke fun at my wife and at me. It is part of the scene, and we take it in stride and with joy. One would never have spoken in that way in my parents’ home, and it would never even have occurred to anyone to speak that way in the Rav’s family. It is not that the degree or quality of the love is different, but the manifestation is different.
To be sure, a parent must have the ability to be assertive and to radiate and communicate authority. A parent is not just a playmate, an older sibling. The parent represents values, represents the world of Judaism; a parent is to the young child, and subsequently to the adolescent child, G-d’s plenipotentiary. He represents the Ribbono shel Olam in his home! Parents represent moral, spiritual, and religious values. As such, to some extent, one must speak with a voice of authority. Still, Teddy Roosevelt’s aphorism, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” requires modification: I would say that a parent must learn to speak softly without carrying a stick, and yet with a clear voice of authority. A parent should not just be a schoolteacher; it is a relationship of Venafesho keshura benafesho, “And his soul is bound up with his soul” (Bereishit 44:30).
Parents must ask themselves to what extent they want to “swing for the fences.” One of the most fascinating autobiographies of the nineteenth century was written by John Stuart Mill. His father did not just swing for the fences, he wanted to hit it out of the ballpark. In his autobiography, Mill describes the education he received. When he was a toddler, the father would let him “play” with Aristotle. If he went for a walk with his father, he was to discuss Aristotle and logic, or Plato and metaphysics. There were no playmates: he never even realized that there were playmates in the world; he simply was raised in a separate environment, and he was a marvel. But at the age of twenty he had a nervous breakdown. What pulled him out of the nervous breakdown was not Plato, not Aristotle, not Aquinas; it was Wordsworth’s poetry.
That is an extreme example. I am not suggesting that everybody who is strict with his children or demanding is running the risk of inducing a nervous breakdown. But at some point, and this is true of the mitzva of chinuch generally as well, you have to decide upon the proper mix – particularly in the home, where it is so critical, even more than in the classroom. In a classroom, too, you have to decide: you can be strict and get results, but at what cost? The result may be that the student knows the material very well, but will develop no love for it – and also no love for you, and no love for G-d, whom you are representing. Alternatively, you can be gentle and pleasant: he may love you, but he may not know much.
This is a tug which I have always felt as an educator, and I never know whether or not I provide the proper mix. Every so often I read about people who are not as concerned as I am with values but are concerned with getting results. In the 1960s, Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi’s results from his players were unparalleled, astounding! But they hated him. Perhaps if you are a football coach and you are hated, it is one thing. However, if you are a parent and you are hated, it is something else entirely.
In particular, if you are concerned with raising children religiously in today’s environment, there are risks that one could have taken at one time, but are now much more problematic. I sense this regarding chinuch in general, and regarding the primary educator – the parent – as well. At one time, if you were very hard on students, and they didn’t like you, they left your school, and went from one educational framework to another. Today, a child drops out of school, he drops out of Shabbat, he drops out of G-d. Teachers, and even more so parents, must find the proper combination of communicating values and making demands but radiating love; this is the mix that defines raising children.
A comparison with the appropriate role of grandparents will help sharpen the complexity of the parental relationship. Chazal expound the verse, “So shall you say (tomar) to the house of Yaakov and tell (tagged) to the children of Israel” (Shemot 19:3): “tagged” means those things that are harsh, and those should be told to the men, who are more assertive, more authoritarian; “tomar” indicates softer language, which is directed at the “house of Yaakov,” that is, the women. There is an analogous verse, “Ask your father and he will tell you (veyaggedecha); your elders and they shall say (veyomeru) to you” (Devarim 32:7): the father is authoritarian, assertive; the grandparent is softer. I have occasionally quoted C.S. Lewis’s statement that many people “want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in Heaven.” I think that grandfathers represent and inculcate values, but the nature of the relationship is such that they cannot be as stern. This approach should occasionally influence the parents as well. In translating the verse, “We have an elderly father, and a small youngest child” (Bereishit 44:20), Onkelos translates the phrase “elderly father” as “Abba sabba,” literally, a father who is a grandfather. Sometimes the father has to learn to be a grandfather, too.
Recently, a student quoted me as saying that a father should be ready both to learn with his children and play ball with them. Despite not remembering making this particular statement, it is the sort of thing I would have said. Still, there is one clarification I want to make. I did not play ball with my children as a trick, as a tactic. I did not think, “Today I’ll play basketball with him, and in a year we will learn Minchat Chinuch.” I don’t think one should approach it that way. There is joy, there is wonder, in the ability to play with one’s children; it is not simply a tool, not just instrumental. It is a joy in its own right, and one of the joys which I think G-d fully permits us and wants us to participate in. I don’t harbor any guilt about playing ball with my children, nor do I regard it as a wasted day. It is part of what being a family is all about.
Raising children is part of an educational endeavor, both in terms of Torah learning and in terms of ethical, religious, and spiritual growth. What kind of person is this child going to be? That is very often a direct educational endeavor. But no less important is the indirect educational endeavor. How you behave towards the child, what climate you create in the home, impacts him definitively. Children are very smart. If you bluff, they will see straight through you. You cannot expect a child to study Torah if you do not learn yourself. But I don’t want to focus too sharply, too exclusively, on the cognitive development: communicating knowledge, love of Torah, love of knowledge. Developing character is more important than knowledge. That is true in a yeshiva, and it is true in a home. This is what we mean by “yirato kodemet lechochmato,” one’s fear of Heaven must precede his wisdom.
A home is a total environment that encompasses many dimensions – not only the cognitive and the moral, but the joys, the labors, and the tensions; all of these arise, and you have to know how to handle them. There are indeed tensions; to see that, you need merely open Sefer Bereishit. You have to be ready to meet the challenges. Some issues are very deeply ingrained and cannot be altogether eliminated. But you can channel, you can soften; you can try to have quiet conversations.
The Gemara in Shabbat (10b) says that a person should not discriminate between his children, to privilege one over the others, and the proof is from the book of Bereishit: Yaakov did it and look what happened to Yosef! Rambam goes even further than Chazal, adding a small phrase: “One should not discriminate between his children even in the slightest way” (Hilchot Nachalot 6:13). I am not sure that one can live up to such a high standard. Usually, however, even if in certain areas you favor one child over another, you can compensate: one goes to camp, the other takes piano lessons. As I said at the beginning, it is an awesome responsibility; but it is a marvelous joy.
As I mentioned, when my sons were in high school, I used to devote several nights a week to learning with them. Once I met one of the ramim at their high school, and he remarked, “What a wonderful thing! As busy as you are, you find time to come learn with your sons.” I looked at him, and could not understand: “If I can’t find time to learn with my sons, for what will I find time? What is my time for?” But he did not seem to understand a word of what I had told him, so I let it be.
Overall, parenting is a tall order, but it generates some of the most beautiful days in your life. In a sense, it is the small things, the really small things, that can matter most. When my youngest son, Shai, was ten, we had occasion to visit my sister in Kiryat Shmuel, which is on the northern outskirts of Haifa. One summer day, the rest of the family went away, and he and I were left home alone. Since Kiryat Shmuel is about ten kilometers from Akko, I suggested bicycling to Akko. We rode up to Akko and came back by train. One may ask: what is the value of riding a bicycle or taking the train? Yet it was, for him and for me – without exchanging words at the time – a formative, bonding experience, trivial as it may seem. Sometimes, within the context of a relationship, it is the trivial things that are most profoundly meaningful. Without being bombastic about it, without blowing anything out of proportion, that is where bonds are forged and relationships are developed. And you have to start when they are young.
In the family of Rav Ahron Soloveichik z”l, the first three children were boys, born relatively close together. When his children were born, he figured his wife would take care of them as infants, and when they were ready to learn Gemara, he would enter the picture. But he soon came to see how wrong he was. When I was in his shiur in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, his first child was born, and he used to come to yeshiva with diaper pins still in his shirt pocket. You cannot start being an involved parent too early.
But you do not play the professional parent; you play the human parent, who works at parenting out of the depth of his love and commitment: the love of the child, the love of the family, and the love of G-d.
Let me close with a brief anecdote. On Yom Ha’atzmaut 1973, just prior to Yom Kippur War, there was a big military parade up Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem. We were new olim, having just come in 1971, and we took our children to see the parade. We went to the home of someone who lived on Keren Hayesod, up to their porch, and watched the parade with a number of other people. On this porch we met a Mr. Cohen from Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff is not Bnei Brak, yet all of Mr. Cohen’s children were religious and all of his grandchildren were religious. He himself was not a rav but a simple layman; many Torah giants did not merit what Mr. Cohen did. My wife and I asked him, “Mr. Cohen, how did you raise such a family?” He responded in Yiddish, “To raise children properly, you need two things: good judgment (seichel), and divine assistance, (siyata dishmaya); and to have seichel, you also need siyata dishmaya.”

However, even if you have seichel and siyata dishmaya, your heart has to be in the right place. You have to be willing to give, and willing to receive. Family life is all about giving and receiving reciprocally, to children, to parents, to a spouse, in all areas of life. Superficially regarded, raising children is massive giving. But I tell you that it is massive receiving, but massive! The joy and nachas are beyond words. 

Born in France in 1933, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, served as the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, as well as RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and inaugural Rosh Kollel of the Gruss Institute. The son-in-law of Rav Yoseif Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l, assumed the mantle as his generation’s eminent Torah U’Madda personality. He held a doctoral degree in English from Harvard University, and served on the faculty of Yeshiva University in New York before making aliya in 1971. His many students are eminent figures in Jewish education in Israel and abroad. Rav Lichtenstein , zt”l, passed away in 2015.