You mentioned that the responsibility of a mother is to work on davening with their kids at home. What should I be doing with them, and how do I combine all the ages?
I truly enjoyed last week’s column, especially since my father says the same thing. “Why has davening become longer if it’s harder for us to focus?” One part that stood out was regarding the mother being in charge of davening at home with the kids. Is there anything in particular I should be doing?
Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking articles! I was wondering exactly what you meant when you wrote that the tone for davening is set by the mother. I would love a longer explanation on this.
Above are three of the many emails I received after last week’s article, in which I mentioned in passing that, “The one person who really teaches the kids to daven is their mother.” I strongly believe that if the mother is on top of the davening at home, the kids will learn how to daven, and the transition to shul will be much easier. Therefore, I will share my thoughts on how this could work. Obviously, all children are different, but hopefully you can use the advice below as a guide.
To keep things simple, let’s assume there are three age groups that we’re dealing with. There are toddlers ranging in age from 2–5. The next group would go up to approximately seven years old. The oldest group continues up to around eleven years old. Kids who are older than this should, ideally, be going to shul. For argument’s sake, we’re going to assume the children in the situations below are boys. I am not sure how this works with the girls as they get older (and are still davening at home). I need to think about this and speak to some mechanchim in girl’s yeshivos.
Here are my thoughts, beginning with the youngest age group.
Ages 2–4: Even at the age of one, children understand and internalize everything their parents do. The first thing you (we’re talking about the mother) should do every morning is say Modeh Ani and wash Negel Vasser with them. Make the berachah together with them. Comments like, “Now we’re ready to start our day” are also helpful, since they should connect washing hands to beginning the day. It’s worth mentioning that the attitude we display when performing mitzvos is a huge indicator as to our emotions. Stumbling over to the sink in pre-coffee mode won’t be as effective as walking over with a big smile.
The next step with this age is for you to daven. Let your little guys play near you while you daven. If they disturb you, don’t say, “Not now, I’m davening.” We want to associate davening with happiness. Make sure to look inside a Siddur when you’re davening and try to stay in one area. This prepares them for eventually going to a shul. Let them sit on your lap as you read the words. If you can, sing parts of davening with them.
Your goal is to make them realize that davening to Hashem is a part of the day that you enjoy, something that makes you happy. Children at this age mimic everything, and they are surprisingly adept at reading body language. It wouldn’t shock me if your toddler begins to imitate your motions after a few weeks of this.
Ages 5–7: At this age, children should understand the importance of davening. They are probably singing parts of davening in school, and can say Modeh Ani, Shema, and a handful of other parts of davening. Many kids this age even have a special Siddur from their school, but if not, you can find many wonderful children’s Siddurim in your local sefarim store.
It is helpful to find out what he davens in school, and even better if you can speak to the rebbe or morah to determine what they think should be said at home. Once the older kids or your husband go to shul, you can start davening with him. (We’re assuming that he already washed negel vasser when he woke up).
You can give him a spot to daven in the same room you’re davening. Set up a Siddur for him and begin davening yourself. Encourage him to sing any parts that he knows out loud—tell him that it makes Hashem so happy. You want to stay away from offering prizes of any sort for davening; a compliment from you is more than enough.
It’s so important to keep in mind that every child is different. There are some five-year-old boys who will daven for 15 minutes beautifully, and there are seven-year-old boys who will stop after three minutes. Don’t make the mistake of comparing your son to your neighbor’s grandson who “davened the entire Shacharis by heart with all the meforshim at the age of three!” A lot of children find it more challenging to daven, and it’s not necessarily a reflection of your parenting.
Once you see your son is “finished,” ask him to close his Siddur, give it a kiss, and put it back on the shelf. If he davened nicely, let him know. Give him a kiss and tell him, “I’m so proud of you! Hashem loves when you talk to him!” You should finish davening yourself at that time while he’s playing (or, more likely, making a mess somewhere). Afterwards, call him over and say the following. “You’re davening so well that I’m going to speak to Abba and see if you can start going to shul for a little bit. Really, shul is for big boys, but you’re really proving that you’re so big.”
If his davening wasn’t that good, don’t make a big deal out of it. If you see him playing around or spacing out, don’t shake your head or make any negative comments. Simply say, “It looks like you’re done davening. As you get older, you’ll begin to daven much nicer. Thank you for taking time to talk to Hashem.” Then remind him to put the Siddur away and give it a kiss. I wouldn’t worry too much about a seven-year-old who’s not davening. If he does better next week, even if it’s only a drop better, make a big deal out of it. Send a mitzvah note to his rebbe. Tell your husband at the Shabbos table.
Ages 8–10: At this age, they really should be going to shul for at least part of the davening, but we’ll discuss that at the end. Initially, the idea is similar to the 5–7 age group. Set up a spot for him to daven and daven yourself in the same room. There will probably be less singing, but he should know a lot more tefillos.
You don’t want to focus on his davening. Even if he’s looking out of the Siddur the entire time, don’t make any comments. Focus on your davening. Look inside your Siddur. Concentrate. He’s still a kid. If you see that he’s not even trying to daven anymore, ask him to daven Shema (or any main tefillah that he didn’t daven yet) inside and then tell him he’s done. If he tells you, “I already said Shema,” make eye contact with him and say “O.K. Thank you for davening to Hashem. Ideally, a boy of your age would daven a little more, but I understand it’s not always easy.” Have him put his Siddur back and give it a kiss. Keep in mind that if he’s focused on something else (Lego or a book), it might be smarter to let him play before he davens so he can get it out of his system.
The next week you should repeat the same approach. However, before he begins davening tell him, “Last week you davened for nine minutes. Let’s try to daven to Hashem for an extra few minutes.” This is more important for boys who are 10 or 11 years old. Again, don’t offer any rewards or prizes; rather, let him daven on his own. You want to increase the time spent davening week by week until you feel he’s ready to go to shul.
If no matter what you do he’s resistant to davening, I still wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Make sure that you keep davening, and every once in a while, tell him, “When you get older, you will iy’H appreciate the beauty and importance of davening.” One other point for this age group: don’t give him a job during the time he should be davening. For example, if he’s not davening during the assigned time, don’t tell him to watch his younger brother since he’s not davening. You don’t want him justifying his lack of davening because he’s helping out. Once his allotted time is complete, you can have him help.
The last two concepts I would like to mention are acclimating to shul and dealing with multiple ages.
When your son is ready to start davening in shul, you must ensure he has something to look forward to. If davening begins at nine, it would be great if he stayed until the Torah comes out so he can give it a kiss. Send along some Jewish books and maybe a lollipop or something. (As a side note, I’m sure the shul would rather you not send crumby foods or open drinks.)
Make sure that your husband is helping him with the parts you’ve been doing at home, whatever the age. When he’s done davening and is becoming fidgety, have your husband (or an older sibling) bring him back home. I know this isn’t ideal, but if you let him run around in shul, he’ll never appreciate the holiness of the shul. It’ll just be another playground for him.
When he comes back home, make a huge deal every week. “Wow! You davened in shul! How was it? Were you super-quiet?” Going to shul is a reward of its own. You’ll be surprised at how quickly he’ll be able to stay for the entire davening. If it doesn’t work out well the first time, wait a few weeks before trying again.
As many of you are aware, I’m not a fan of youth groups. I’m not going to get into the particulars, but I strongly believe that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their children how to daven. Although there are always some exceptions, it seems to me that many groups on Shabbos are just glorified babysitting. I know that many of you disagree with me, and if you have already sent me your rebuttal the last time I wrote this, you don’t need to resend it. (Unless it makes you feel better, in which case, send it over.)
The last discussion is dealing with multiple ages simultaneously. Working with multiple children changes the whole dynamics. It’s not possible to give a concrete solution since there are so many variables. If there are siblings who are of similar ages, you can setup a mini-shul and let them take turns being chazzan. Make sure to constantly compliment the children davening well.
If it’s not practical to have them all daven together, I would focus on the older ones first and let the younger ones play in a different room. If you’re unable to daven at all because of the other kids, you need to determine if the older kids are capable of davening without your help. If yes, let them daven, and make a big deal about how proud of them you are. If they still need your assistance, daven with them when your husband comes home from shul.
If your husband offers to daven with them when he gets home, don’t take him up on the offer. First of all, it’ll be a chance for you to daven also (while letting your husband “bond” with the little guys). I really think that women are better suited to giving over a love for davening.
I would like to end with four questions that we can all think about.
- What should you do if your son’s friends are running around the shul and he wants to join them?
- How about if your husband isn’t a great davener or, chas v’shalom, talks during davening. Should you still send your boys?
- What should a parent do if a younger child is davening better than the older child? Should the younger child be allowed to go to shul if the older boy is still at home?
- And lastly, is it smart to tell a child who is a weak davener that a sick person needs his tefillos?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly emails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.