PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR CONDUCTING A FAMILY SHABBOS MEAL
by Rabbi Chaim Morgenstern
Reprinted from the booklet with permission by the author.
The Shabbos seudah, when the entire family is together, provides a tremendous opportunity for parents to build and strengthen three vital areas of family life: 1) the kesher with their children, 2) their children’s self-esteem, and 3) family harmony. Additionally, it can be used for training children in derech eretz, good midos and the mitzvos of honoring and revering their parents.
These objectives can only be accomplished, however, when the right atmosphere prevails at the seudah.With many families, especially ones with small children, the Shabbos table is a real challenge to keep orderly, while with others it is a struggle to survive in one piece.Without an orderly table, it is impossible to reap the many benefits that the Shabbos table has to offer. The following guidelines can help parents to have an orderly Shabbos meal.
I. THE PARENT-CHILD INTERACTION
HOW LONG SHOULD A CHILD BE EXPECTED TO STAY AT THE MEAL?
Before dealing with this issue, parents should be aware of one of the most important priniciples of chinuch. Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes that chinuch must match the child's intellectual level. We learn this from Chazal, who set specific times for teaching children Torah: Chumash when he is five years old; Mishneh at 10; at 13 years, he is obligated to keep the mitzvos; at 15, we teach him Gemara; and at 18 years, he is ready for marriage (Pirkei Avos, 5:23). The reason for this delineation is that the child's intellect and understanding determines when and what he should be taught. A young child, for example, can only comprehend Chumash. As his intellect develops, he will be ready to learn Mishneh at 10, and only at 13 will he be developed enough to be obligated in mitzvos. Thus, concludes Rav Wolbe, if this is true for Torah and mitzvos, how much more does this principle apply when training a child in midos and derech eretz? (Alei Shur, Vol.1, p. 263; Vol 2, p. 339)
The skill of chinuch, he concludes, is to pair the proper chinuch to the child's development, i.e., when to teach him what is mutar and assur, and when to train him in proper conduct and behavior. If anxious parents try to train or demand of their young children to behave in a manner that is not yet suited for their age, even if they succeed, they can harm their children’s emotional development. Parents should be aware that any demand of a child that is made before he is ready can cause him emotional scars in the form of fears, depression and low self-confidence. This even includes simple demands, such as training a child in cleanliness, sitting orderly at the table and the like, which parents often require many years before their young children are ready. This is one of the reasons why parents are not successful in the chinuch of their children.
Since young children cannot sit orderly at the Shabbos table for a long time, parents must determine the length of time that they should be at the meal. A young child who feels that he is forced to stay at a meal will become restless and disruptive. (Rav Wolbe also told me that we cannot expect young children to sit for a long period of time at the Shabbos table; even 45 minutes is too long.)
Here is my advice on this matter:
· For toddlers below five, it is usually best to feed them before the meal. Try to have them hear Kiddush and Hamotzi, and let them stay at the table for short periods during the meal to participate however they can. If they show interest, they can sing zemiros or give over what they learned in kindergarten on the parsha.
· When the child is a bit older, set time limits at the table based on his ability to sit orderly. For example, start with Kiddush and Hamotzi, part of the meal, one of his favorite zemiros and perhaps add a few extra minutes to hear a d’var Torah from the father or for the child to give over something his rebbe taught him. Allow the child to leave the table and go play if he gets restless. By knowing in advance that he will only have to sit orderly and participate in the meal for a short while, the child will find it easier to behave properly. As the child gets older and more settled, the limits can be extended.
· Do not force a young child to sit through the entire meal if it is too strenuous for him. Otherwise, parents only stand to lose in the long run, as the child will grow up with resentment and an aversion toward Shabbos meals.
· When it comes to bentching, require the child to say only what he bentches in school and no more.
· After the meal, give each child who behaved properly a nice treat. This will give them an incentive to do the same or better the next time.
(Picture courtesy of Ari Sutton Studios)
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