Why it's worth bringing your kid along to pray.

Snapshots of life at home.
April 10 2009 5:47 PM

For God's Sake

Why it's worth bringing your kid along to pray.

My daughter Rebekah, recently turned 2, is very businesslike about synagogue. We usually arrive at our haimish  congregation at 10:30 on Saturday mornings, about 15 minutes before the young children's service, for little Jews ages 0 to 5, begins. After taking our coats off, we make our way to "children's room," as Rebekah calls it, a large, carpeted space that during the week is home to a Montessori preschool. We're almost always early; we live only half a mile from the synagogue, but Rebekah begins urging us out of the house at around 9:30: "Shul now!" When we finally arrive at the otherwise empty children's room, she rifles through the wicker basket that holds the home-made toddler prayerbooks, finds the one with her name on it—she can't read, of course, but she recognizes what's hers—sits down on my lap, and says, "We start now."

Well, we don't start now. We don't start until 10, even 15 minutes later, when a quorum of around five children has arrived, a critical mass that will grow to about a dozen children, plus their parents, over the next 45 minutes. But until we begin, Rebekah is in a state of heightened, fidgety anticipation—and after we begin, she is happy, happy, happy. She loves the songs, loves babbling along with the few Hebrew words she has almost memorized, and especially loves marching around the room with a plushy stuffed Torah. Synagogue, along with Monday gym class and her daily DVD viewing of a trippy mid-1970s children's show that her mother loved as a child, is one of Rebekah's favorite rituals.

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I don't kid myself that Rebekah has some unusual, precocious spirituality. She loves ritual, as all children love ritual. Nothing, except milk and maybe Graham crackers, is more comforting to a toddler than a fun routine enjoyed at predictable intervals. Little boys and girls love the sense of mastery that comes with repetition. They're so proud to finish our sentences as we read them a book for the 50th or one 100th time ("old lady who was whispering…" "hush!"). If we skip bath time, they know. But as much as I love seeing my daughter get excited about any of her routines, I acknowledge that there is something a little more complicated, for me, about religious enthusiasm. After all, I want her to be an enthusiastic reader and an enthusiastic bather. But I want her to be thoughtful and critical about religion. Although I've never asked, I think most of my fellow synagogue parents are atheists (as I am, about half the time). Is it wrong to educate our children in prayers whose value we feel ambivalent about?

This it not a uniquely Jewish question. All rabbis know the parents who discover Judaism two years before their children are of bar or bat mitzvah age, then quit the synagogue the day after the party—but every priest, minister, and imam also know worshippers who discover organized religion only when they become parents. And scholars have confirmed what every clergyperson knows anecdotally. "Both getting married and having children bring adults 'back to church,' " sociologist Penny Edgell, author of Religion and Family in a Changing Society, told me by e-mail. "These effects are bigger for children than for marriage. And for both getting married and having children, the effects on church attendance are bigger for men than for women." Beleaguered clergy tend to have two responses. First, they are thankful that children bring in parents who otherwise would never join a religious community. But, second, they can't help but feel used: They're supposed to educate children in the value of religion, even as the parents—who may be golfing or shopping while the children are at confirmation classes—signal in all sorts of ways that religion doesn't really matter. Such behavior cheapens religion, makes clergy hate their jobs, makes children cynical, and leads to jokes like the one about the father who says to his son, "You hate Sunday school? Well, I hated Sunday school, you hate Sunday school, and someday your children will hate Sunday school—that's tradition!"

If we can agree that that's a bad argument for tradition, then we need a better reason for taking Rebekah to the children's services every Saturday. Fortunately, there are many better reasons. To begin, one of the great virtues of religion is its routinized nature. Indeed, it's hard to imagine something qualifying as a religion without holidays, whether weekly or annual. Most parents I know feel they don't have enough time with their children, so any activity that parents and children can do, together, at frequent and predictable times, is probably worthwhile. I can already hear somebody saying, "But why must that activity be religious? Why not just a regular Wednesday afternoon walk to in the park?" And in one sense, a weekly park stroll is just as good as weekly religious attendance. (If ducklings are involved, it's probably better.) But it's a fact of life that routines are easier to establish with some outside regulator, and two of the best are nationalism and religion. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Passover and Hanukkah—experience teaches us that these holidays work, bringing families together at regular, predictable times. Their nonideological and secular counterparts, like Mother's Day, don't work as well. The anti-religious and anti-patriotic can despair of this aspect of the human condition, but while they despair I'll be with my daughter at synagogue or at a Fourth of July cookout.

I do consider this activity, this synagogue-going, valuable in itself, too, not just as a weekly father/daughter date. Here, my perspective may make the most sense to Jews, but I bet it will resonate with others, too. As a conspicuous minority, a perennial "other" in most countries where they live, Jews are often asked what it is they believe; we're often asked, in other words, to explain ourselves. For most of my life, I had no idea how to answer Gentiles' questions. I could name a few Jewish holidays, and I had a vague sense of what was considered Jewish culture, although queered by my grandfather's particular tastes, like the humorous troubadour Allan Sherman. I suppose some people never wonder more deeply about their roots, but in my experience they're the rarity; to the contrary, most Protestants raised in liberal churches wish they knew a little better what made them as, say, Presbyterians different from the Lutherans they knew. One of the great jokes about Unitarian Sunday school is that it spends all its time teaching about world religions but forgets to schedule a week on Unitarianism.

It is always possible, of course, that children take religious teaching to heart in a way that, as they age, makes their parents uncomfortable. By exposing my daughter to Judaism, I take the risk that she will believe all of it, literally. For some Jews, this would be the perfect result, but not for me: I want my children to grow into mini-mes, skeptical but enthustiastic! Questioning but curious! Proud but not chauvinistic! I hope she'll develop my religiosity, in which devotion, beautiful in its own right, need not be tested against rationality. Alas, that's probably a vain hope. My daughters are young yet, but from what I hear, children surprise us. Sometimes the surprise is that they heed our teachings too well. I know a faithful Catholic who is horrified that her son became a priest; lots of good liberals are upset that their children are radicals. My daughter may not turn into the Jew who I vigorously pat myself on the back for being—but that's just another way of saying that she won't be me. In the meantime, I can expose her to activities I love—and I love the mysterium of Sabbath services—trusting that when she turns them to her own ends, she'll do so in a way that makes sense for her, though perhaps not for her dad.

The best reason I have found to keep letting my daughter take me to shul is that, so far, anyway, she always manages to find something to teach me. She models the best of religion. For her, it's educational, it's joyful, and it's social. And she makes sure to keep it that way: If she gets bored 15 minutes in, she just walks out, strolls around the building, and returns when she's good and ready.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.

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