I was speaking to a parent this week who struggles to keep her son in shul. We did the blame game at first: it’s the shul’s fault for not offering enough or the right tefilah options for kids; it’s the parents’ fault for not insisting that their children stay with them during tefilah; it’s the school’s fault for not inspiring the kids enough to want to daven; it’s the community’s fault for not prioritizing tefilah the way it should. Bottom line – everyone is trying, each is struggling. The more useful question is, I think – what are some ideas we can try, and how can we mutually reinforce one another in our common goals.
I had a thought during my conversation with this parent that I refined while I was at the Chinuch minyan at the BAYT this past Shabbat. They have a lot of good activities to engage kids: a short shiur with hot chocolate before tefilah; parsha questions with candy prizes between aliyot; and giving kids as many roles as possible as part of tefilah. But what struck me were two different, and related observations.
The first is that almost all of the children on the boys side sat with their fathers (I recognize the girls are a little more complicated – more on this below). This meant there was some personal guidance during tefilah, and that the kids didn’t sit together and talk as they might have otherwise (as a side benefit, it meant that the fathers weren’t talking to each other that much either). Both of these outcomes – educational and social – are powerful and important. It’s a kind of apprenticeship model of tefilah that I would hope over the long term would also lead to the kind of closeness that arises when a master and an apprentice work closely together. I’m not sure it was an intentional decision for people to sit this way, but it certainly has positive benefits.
But there’s another reason why I think this matters as well.
A friend mentioned to me that when he looked around shul recently, he saw very few family groups (fathers, children, grandfathers) sitting together, as he was once used to. He felt like something was missing. It’s that sense of continuity, of connectedness that is represented by multiple generations sitting together during shul, in ‘their place in shul.’ I think that’s a second piece here. What I saw was not just parents educating their kids, they were enculturating them to a religious-family social dynamic. That being in shul is something they do together, not just something they have to get through individually. It becomes part of a family story, a way ‘we do things.’
Now back to what I noticed, and had thought about during my conversation with that mother. The idea is deceptively simple, a bit hard to implement, but an extremely powerful intervention. Everyone was in shul. Boys could no longer say to their fathers, “Everyone is outside playing, and I have to be in shul with you!” The resentment in such a statement is palpable, no? But here, all the boys were in shul, so there was no FOMO. That didn’t mean it was always easy or fun, but it removed an obstacle by kids having their friends present. It makes me wonder if this is something that can be even more proactive, with groups of fathers in a grade commiting to come with their boys to a common minyan, so no one feels like they are missing out, and everyone can be present. It would make tefilah not only socially normative, but would remove a big barrier to entry. I realize this seems like such a small piece, and contains none of the inspiration we hope for when talking about tefilah education. But I think it’s small steps like these, removing what makes insisting on good tefilah habits hard, as much as finding things that work to engage our kids.
I came across some of the thinking behind this approach on the Farnum Street newsletter. It’s worth sharing in full:
Eventually, everyone loses the battle with willpower; it’s only a matter of time. Consider my parents. Neither of them smoked when they joined the armed forces, but it didn’t take long for them to join their smoking co-workers. At first, they resisted, but as the days turned into weeks, the grind of saying no when everyone else was saying yes wore them down. Decades later, quitting proved nearly impossible when they turned to willpower. Everyone around them smoked. The very same force that encouraged them to start was preventing them from stopping. They were only able to kick their habit when they changed their environment. They had to find new friends whose default behavior was their desired behavior.
What looks like discipline is often a carefully created environment to encourage certain behaviors. What looks like poor choices is often someone trying their best to use willpower to go against their environment.
The people with the best defaults are typically the ones with the best environment. Sometimes it’s carefully chosen, and sometimes it’s just plain luck. Either way, it’s easier to align yourself with the right behavior in the right environment.
The way to improve your defaults isn’t by willpower but by creating an artificial environment where your desired behavior becomes the default behavior.
Joining groups whose defaults are your desires is an effective way to create an artificial environment. If you want to read more, join a book club. If you want to run more, join a running club. If you want to exercise more, hire a trainer.
Your environment will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you if you align it with where you want to go.
I davened at a particular minyan in Thornhill this past Yom Kippur. What I noticed was a real parallel to what I reflected on above: boys sitting with their fathers, sometimes quietly coached, other times acculturated into the norms of tefilah. Everyone was quiet and engaged. And, yet, when we went out for yizkor, the kids gathered together and talked, as did the adults. It was like the script changed as soon as we left the shul, the rules were different, and in each place, understood. That’s the power of environment that the quote above clarifies, that I advocated for above and saw in the BAYT minyan. What would this take to happen? Probably not much more than a WhatsApp group, and a bit of good will. The question is – are we willing to try?
I’ll admit this may be more complicated for girls, as it’s often harder, given the expectations of minyan on men, for women to come to shul and play a role in the same way described above. Here I want to give credit to the Chinuch minyan for two things they’ve done. The first is to have the bnot sheirut come and, at certain times, pull the girls out for an alternative tefilah. This has the feeling of being special for them, as something that gives the girls that extra attention, but is hard in a ‘regular’ minyan. The second are the moms in the minyan who play the apprenticeship role for the girls who are present. It’s pretty incredible, and makes a big difference in role modeling and support.
And since we’re talking tefilah, and I’m making suggestions for life outside of school, I thought it only fair to share a few things we are doing in middle school, which I hope are adding up to a bigger impact: hallel or tefilah in the park; student divrei tefilah before mincha; student divrei halacha during Shacharit; alternative tefilah experiences focused on ruchniyut and students’ relationship with Hashem (coming soon); a little more singing during regular tefilah; tefilah trivia with prizes, and more. With reference to the above ideas – we have kids’ in the room. Our job is to maximize that experience.
Like I said above, it’s all of our collective responsibility.