Why is there pain and suffering in the world? How can we understand a Halacha or Torah portion that seems to be incompatible with our current knowledge and values? Where do babies come from? There is no shortage of difficult and controversial topics that might arise at the Shabbat table, leaving adults nervously glancing at each other and promptly changing the topic. While avoidance is the most automatic and likely easiest route out of the uncomfortable situation, it is not necessarily the best approach.
Since children notice everything parents say and do and are very aware when adults sidestep a conversation, it is best that parents be prepared to address challenging topics, directly. If parents avoid discussing sensitive topics with their children, children will think that either there is no answer or that perhaps their parents just don’t know the answer. Children will instead learn about these topics from their friends, social media, TV, movies and the internet. Generally speaking, the ideas espoused in these mediums are not how we want our children’s worldview shaped around theological and sensitive issues.
While it can be uncomfortable to directly address complex subjects, it can alternatively be appreciated as an opportunity to share your values and how you approach thinking about challenging topics with your children. You can learn your children’s thoughts about social, religious and sexual issues and also directly impart your perspectives on these issues. You can also explain how you navigate tough theological topics by maintaining faith and belief even when you cannot fully resolve a theological dilemma. An additional bonus is the opportunity to demonstrate the proper way to engage in difficult conversations. You can demonstrate consistent respect for others and that contrary views on an issue can lead to respectful debate and discussion. While demonstrating respect for another’s opinion, you are simultaneously teaching children to never belittle others.
When your child shares a controversial position, it can be an opportune time to confirm your unconditional love and acceptance of him or her, despite his or her thoughts and perspectives. Continually demonstrating unconditional love for one’s children is important because as children get older, they will often think contrary to some of their parents’ opinions and likely act differently from parents’ ideal behavior. Just as many of today’s adults act religiously different from their parents, today’s children will also forge their own religious paths. By building a strong relationship with one’s children that allows for difficult conversations and respectfully discussing divergent opinions, one will be better suited to maintain that relationship, even when it is stressed by social, religious or political differences.
So how should you respond to challenging questions at the Shabbat table or wherever they arise? The following strategies can readily be applied to most situations. It is, however, important to remember to keep the conversation age appropriate.
1. Encourage open dialogue and discussion. Acknowledge that the topic is difficult to discuss, but that you want to address it with them anyway.
2. Find out what they know or what their thoughts are about the topic. By understanding what is on their mind, you will better understand how to respond.
3. Encourage critical thinking. Curiously, ask open-ended questions such as “Why do you think that?” or “Where did you learn that?” Model how to think through difficult ideas.
4. Share your honest opinions and your values. Tell your children where you stand on that particular topic and, if relevant, that you also have wondered or struggled with that very question.
5. Admit when you don’t know something and offer to research it. And then be sure to continue the conversation with them at another time.
6. This can also be a teachable moment in which you can help your children understand the difference between fact, fiction and opinion. You can also teach them to critically evaluate the reliability of their source of information.
When there are vastly different age groups at the table, it can be challenging (and at times inappropriate) to respond in depth about sensitive topics. In these situations, it is best to tell your child that you appreciate their question and will answer it, but you’d rather do so with them after the meal. You can add that you are always willing to discuss any topic with him or her, but some topics are just not for the Shabbat table.
At times, a topic will arise that should not be encouraged, such as lashon hara (badmouthing people) or any other negative exchange. In these instances, quickly changing the subject can be a very useful strategy. Growing up, when any table talk turned negative or toward planning for the weekday, my father quickly sang a one-line “Shabbos, Shabbos, Yom Menuchah” jingle and the family quickly got his message and dropped that conversation. Its simplicity was its effectiveness. Instead of a lecture or a confrontation, he just refocused the individual toward a positive direction.
Aside from the specific example of the need to drop a topic of conversation, the benefits of directly responding to challenging questions or topics are manifold. You are helping your child appreciate that his or her thoughts matter, thereby building your child’s self-esteem. By acknowledging and welcoming your child’s curiosity you are helping foster critical-thinking skills, which are an important element of every child’s development. By demonstrating that you are open to hearing and discussing whatever is on your child’s mind, you are strengthening the foundation of the parent-child relationship and increasing the likelihood that when they are struggling, which may be many years from now, they will be more likely to trust that you will be open to discussing it and appropriately helping them.
Children are constantly learning from their parents, by watching how they act, listening to what they say, and being very aware when they avoid responding to a question or topic of conversation. By directly tackling difficult topics even when it is uncomfortable, you are demonstrating that they too should welcome difficult conversations and not shy away from them. The Shabbat table is where children and parents connect and where children learn their parents’ values. As such, we should welcome these challenging questions and try our best to respond knowledgeably and with appreciation of how vital our responses are for our children’s development.
Chaim Nissel is Yeshiva University’s dean of students and a clinical psychologist, residing in New Hempstead, New York. He can be reached at [email protected]