Talking to Children

This time I’ll start with two seemingly similar vignettes.

1- Like many young couples immigrating to the U.S. my parents had a very hard time at first making ends meet. The question of working on shabbat was especially vexing in their case: on the one hand, the economic need was clear; on the other hand, my father grew up without any significant religious education but promised my mother that the household and family would be strictly Orthodox. It was only when I was an adult and after he passed away that my mother told me about their “solution”.

2- One day when I was ten years old, my father told me that mom was going away on a vacation to Florida for “a few weeks”. At the time, I thought it a bit strange, but 10-year-olds don’t ask too many questions (certainly not back then). Here again, it was only much, much later in life (well into my 50s) that I realized that she must have had a nervous breakdown.

What should parents tell their children? Or more to the point, what should they hold back from their progeny – if anything? Obviously, there’s a “when” question here too; you can’t tell a three-year-old what you could a teen who’s thirteen. But I’ll leave the “when” question in abeyance.

Regarding vignette #1, they decided that he would open his lingerie store on shabbat – until I was three years old, and then stop Saturday openings. Why three years old? Because that’s the age when young children begin to “follow” what’s going on around them and start asking questions – in this case, something like “why can’t I go to synagogue with dad like my friends do?” Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, 3 is considered to be the age when tots turn into cognitive children and real “education” starts. It is also the age when many traditional Jews give their sons the first haircut (similar to a tree that starts providing fruit after three years).

As to vignette #2, my mother – still alive today [2020] at age 95 (until 120…) – had a difficult youth. Fleeing Germany by herself in 1939 at age 14 on a Nazi ship (!) going to Lisbon; a year later setting up with her mother the only kosher “pension” (bed & breakfast) for fleeing Jewish refugees, working there night and day; a year or two later moving to the island of Jamaica where the British had set up a refugee camp, and then in 1944 (age 18) relocating one again to Cuba – all that effectively eliminated any possibility for a carefree teenage life. There were other family tribulations that I won’t get into here, but in retrospect a nervous breakdown made sense – even if a decade and a half later. Amazingly, she returned quite “recuperated” and functioned fantastically for many decades thereafter.

Should I have been told at some later point about the lingerie store and shabbat? That would have defeated the very purpose of stopping the Saturday opening when I turned three. In addition, certainly until the teenage years there is little understanding of “home economics” matters, not to mention hard tradeoffs that we are sometimes forced to do in our life.

Should my parents have told me the real reason for my mother’s “vacation”? (My brother David was only six at the time – far too young for that sort of information.) Here my answer is different: I believe they should have, considering that they knew me as quite an emotionally stable and pretty intelligent kid.

One might ask: what good would it have done? Perhaps greater consideration on my part going forward regarding my mother’s emotional state (I was as much a “fashtunkener” teenager as most). Perhaps to understand more about her past specifically, and the Holocaust period in general. And even perhaps to be a greater helping hand around the house. In retrospect, one thing is clear: had I known, I would have been even prouder of my mother for all she accomplished despite her sensitive emotional state.

This is not to say that I feel any animosity whatsoever for the fact that my parents did not tell me the truth about either situation. In most cases, parents have the right to keep certain things close to the chest – especially for pre-teenage children.

However, one has to also take something else into consideration: whether the “secret” is only hush-hush for the child in question – and public for everyone else! That’s a situation that almost demands disclosure. Hearing about the “secret” from a kid’s parents, at a level appropriate for the child’s age, is infinitely better than stumbling on it through a relative’s (or worse – a stranger’s!) slip of the tongue. In the latter case, not only is the “shock” greater, but it could theoretically impact the child’s trust in her/his parents: “If they didn’t tell me about that, what other secrets (skeletons) are there in my family’s closet?”

In short, parents have to think carefully about what they tell their children; but they equally have to consider the downside of NOT relating important family matters.


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