Imagine that you and your spouse are deeply devoted to a lifestyle of only eating ‘health food’ and eschewing all forms of nosh. In fact, you feel so strongly about this that you both decide to raise your children with the healthful eating habits that you adopted.
When your first child was born, you began thinking about the best way to transmit this value to him. You realized that the first few years of his life will not present much difficulty. After all, you will be almost completely in control of his environment and the foods he is exposed to. You fully understand, however, that things will get far more challenging once he is enrolled in school, as he will progressively be in the presence of more and more of the junk food you want him to avoid.
At that early point in your new role as parents, there are basically two approaches you can embrace in order to pass on your healthful eating habits to the next generation. I like to think of these diverse mindsets in terms of If and When.
The If philosophy embraces the premise that If you can create the proper set of circumstances, you have a decent shot of protecting your children in perpetuity from negative junk food influences. The When mindset, on the other hand, assumes that despite your best If efforts, it is inevitable that your child will encounter any and all types of food throughout his life. Therefore, you channel your energy in preparing him for the When – the time when you will no longer be able to shield him from the elements.
If I may use another analogy; If is like creating a spaceship (an enclosed area where one can survive in an environment not conducive to human habitat), while When is more like a spacesuit (the type of protection that is portable and accompanies the person it protects.)
Should you decide to go the If route, you would simply eliminate your son’s exposure to junk food. That means no play-dates for your son in the homes of families that don’t share your eating habits, and no birthday parties where nosh is served. You might canvass the parent body of your son’s school for fathers and mothers who share your values and eventually start a ‘break-away’ school where all students will eat health food. If you are really into the If mindset, you might even decide to move to a neighborhood where all families are similar minded, travel on buses with health conscious people, and shop in stores that only carry foods you find acceptable.
Conversely, adopting the When outlook requires you to keep the long-term picture in mind from the very start and then work your way backwards. That means setting a far reaching goal of having your baby son eat well throughout his life – even When he matures into adulthood and starts his own family. To achieve that goal, you realize that you will really need to ‘sell’ the concept of healthy living to your son, not just limit his exposure to junk food. So you patiently teach him all about the human body, and devote a great deal of time explaining the rationale behind healthful living.
You would also do everything possible to encourage him to ask you any questions that come to his mind – even or especially those that challenge the philosophy you espouse. After all, you fully realize that he will, in all likelihood, be asking these questions as soon as the When stage of his life begins. With that in mind, you would much rather respond to them early on, lest they fester and erode his faith in your tradition later in life, when you have far less input into his life.
You would also do everything possible to make healthful living as attractive as possible to him, by preparing the tastiest meals from the foods you eat at home. And while you most certainly will quote research-based studies, that people who eat carefully have an enhanced quality of life and less illness, you will never make wild exaggerations and say things like, “All people who eat junk food die at a young age,” or “People who eat well never have any problems at all.” Why? Because you understand that this misinformation may carry the day in the If phase, but will never survive the When stage – and once your kids realize that you were less than truthful with them, they will turn cynical and perhaps reject even your accurate teachings.
As we do our very best to raise our children with healthy Torah values all the while surrounded by spiritual junk food, I suggest that we collectively and individually ask ourselves how much energy and passion we are devoting to If activities and how much to the When ones?
From my vantage point, a hybrid of the two approaches seems to be most logical and effective way to be mechanech our sons and daughters in these challenging times. For while only concentrating on When and allowing our children to be exposed to negative influences would be terribly irresponsible and harmful, relying on If only, is at least equally as dangerous.
Stepping back a bit; my generation was raised with very little If and a great deal of When, while increasingly over the past thirty years, we have, for all the right reasons and with the best of intentions, preoccupied ourselves with lots and lots of If. I think all the while, however, we let our guard down and looked the wrong way, as we’ve been neglecting the enduring When chinuch values that we got from our parents.
Could that possibly be a contributing factor to the growing list of problems we are having with our kids – many of which seemed to have been less of an issue to the children of our parents?
© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved