You respond, “Well, what would you prefer to do?” “Lots of things,” he says. “I think I’ll visit Zeide at his office. He knows a lot of interesting stories about the Holocaust and maybe I’ll type one up. Then I’ll visit Bubbie and she’ll probably give me money to buy pizza. I’ll eat it in her house and we’ll schmooze. I also want to go to the sefarim store to buy the book I’ve been saving up for. Remember that mystery I was working on? I think I’m going to start writing the next chapter. For the afternoon, I was thinking of riding my bicycle to the park. Then I’m going to shul and will learn for a few hours. They have an Artscroll Gemara there, or I can always call Tatty if I get stuck and have questions. Later, when my friends come home from school, I’m going to ask Yehudah to come over. Is it okay if he stay for supper? Maybe we can do a science experiment.” “Okay,” you say. “Sounds like a plan. I’m leaving for work now. Call me if you need anything. Just come home before four o’clock so you can set the table for dinner. And don’t forget to daven before you leave the house. Check the time for zman kriyas Shema. (saying the Shema prayer)” “Thanks, Mom,” your child says, pulling the covers back up. “I’m going to read my book for a while. When I get up, I’ll make a couple of eggs and toast for breakfast.” I don’t need to imagine this scenario. It’s a verbatim account of the conversations that take place between me and my youngest child some mornings on random school days. I can hear your judgmental, disapproving clucks. You think I’m a terrible parent. Even if school is “boring,” children need to learn discipline. How can they grow up and successfully integrate into society if there are no expectations to conform to societal norms? I will answer you.
What if a child might not grow up? Do those rules still apply? I confess that I’ve always been a rule-bender. When my children were young, they were all allowed days off. The official rule was two off days per year, no questions asked. They did not always avail themselves of the opportunity, and sometimes there were requests for “rollover” unused days. I believe that children are self-motivated to succeed, and as the famous psychologist Karen Horney posited: Just as an acorn will develop into a mighty oak given the right conditions, so too will children naturally gravitate towards achievement. My children automatically stopped taking days off from school when it interfered with their studies in high school. I do not believe that it was because my children were successful that I was able to bend the rules. Rather, because the right conditions for self-actualization were fostered, it was natural to allow them this measure of independence and freedom. Okay, perhaps this son has been taking off more days from school than his older siblings did in their time. But that is because, despite looking the picture of health, this particular child has cancer. And while we believe—we know— that he will be a survivor, our initial scare and subsequent experiences have forced us into an altered world: our new normal. While we all aspire to fulfill the Chazal enjoining us to utilize each day as if it is our last, most of us don’t actually live up to that dictum unless we are faced with the very real specter of a life measured in months and not years.
And then, when that happens, all of our norms, each of our activities of daily living are scrutinized under a microscopic lens to determine its value in the job of living, and living authentically Seen under that lens, my priorities have shifted sharply. A child’s days should be spent learning Torah, reading and writing, riding a bicycle and socializing with friends. Children should engage in activities that excite their natural love of learning and encourage them to take delight in the world. Their days should be structured to allow them to fulfill their potential and the role for which they were put on Earth (something I believe every person gravitates toward naturally). Children should be encouraged to engage in sincere davening and a relationship with Hashem, to internalize Yiddishkeit in a meaningful way, to fulfill mitzvos and live each day eloquently. (Of course, some days will just be whiled away lazing around, creating mischief and getting into trouble. Oh my!) I’ve always felt this way. And so children had their days off. Throughout my kids’ childhoods we had finger paints in the house, zillions of interesting books, and not a single video or computer game, handheld or otherwise. We baked cookies and challos together, encouraged sleepovers, and popped popcorn the old-fashioned way, with oil in a pot. We traveled to different states, visited Epcot Center, learned how to ski and climbed mountains. Around the supper table most evenings my children would discuss the day’s activities, what being frum meant to them, and offer their opinions on how the president was running the country.
When every day must count, it means even less to me have my child spend so many hours in an environment that often promotes adherence to conformity above all else. While it is true that many schools use stimulating and enriching pedagogical methods as incentives, many children do not flourish in environments where they are told when to be artistic, when and how to socialize, and the amount of time each activity and lesson should take. They can also suffer socially from the behavior of peers that slips under the teacher’s radar. Because of my child’s illness, life is viewed so differently. I often wonder how radically our individual and communal lives would change if we viewed each child through this lens of making every single moment count, allowing for self-motivation and the ability to achieve—on whatever the child’s level—to flow naturally from an innate desire to engage in avodas Hashem. So when my 11-year-old occasionally balks at the idea of eight hours in school, and can rattle off a list of alternative activities that will promote inner satisfaction and well-being, as naturally as the acorn seeks to become the oak tree, I’m not surprised. All of our children can do that. Even without cancer.