Friday, October 29, 2010

Ora Crawls/Walks, David Melts Away, Frum Kids and Therapy

It's amazing. Just a month ago Ora was barely crawling, now she's crawling all over the place. I don't think it will be long before she's walking. She's always loved to be put into a standing position--she would stiffen up and not let us sit her down--and she is starting to pull herself up. Just two days ago I was doing homework with David at the table--talk about pulling teeth (usually Kineret takes care of this)--and when I looked down, there she was standing and hanging onto the leg of my chair for dear life.
Ora is also still babbling a ton and whistles a bit. Kineret said she shakes her head no, but I haven't seen this. She also looks up at the light when asked in Russian, "where is the lamp?"
Although she looks so big and grown up to me now, she is actually at the very bottom of the weight chart. But on the other hand she is tall. (David, in contrast, was in the 90th+ percentile for weight and height.) We were a little concerned, but her pediatrician said it is ok and anyway she'll be tall and thin like a model. Considering the stereotypical anorexic model, he wasn't very comforting. I also wonder if there is some sexism involved, whereby he is more willing to overlook underweight girls.
* * *
The most difficult adjustment by far--for all of us--in terms of David's public school has been the schedule. He has a lot of homework as well as Talmud Torah two evenings a week and Sunday mornings. We've had to pull him from judo and cancel his physical therapy. I really hope he is getting enough exercise because he can still use a lot help in terms of coordination, proprioception, muscle tone, etc.
Kineret believes that some of his problems are because he didn't get enough "tummy time" and because he was a late crawler. So while everyone is commenting that Ora will soon be walking, I wouldn't mind if she keeps on crawling for a while and builds up her upper body strength.
* * *
We know a lot of frum kids who get physical and/or occupational therapy. I sometimes wonder if many of our kids really have underlying problems that necessitate such therapy or if their problems simply stem from a lack of exercise and activity owing to the busy yeshivah schedule, frum disdain for sports, etc. It also doesn't help that these frum kids live in heavily built-up urban areas and I also wonder if in general there is a difference in therapy rates between urban and rural kids. (With suburban kids somewhere in the middle?) Of course a confounding factor in such a study would be the drastic difference between urban and rural areas in terms of access to such services.
Have a good shabbos.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah Applied to Parenting

My approach to sechar va-onesh (Divine reward and punishment) is essentially--or some would say is crudely--a Maimonidean one. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah--averah goreret averah. Good deeds beget more good deeds--bad deeds beget more bad deeds.
I don't like idea of bribing kids. You can make yourself feel better by calling it positive reinforcement, behavior modification, point system, star charts, etc., but you're just fooling yourself. It's still a bribe no matter what you call it.
I'm not saying I don't engage in the practice myself. When literally overnight I had to come up with a way to reorient his davening environment, naturally my first instinct was to dangle some type of bribe in front of him. (Background: David loves to daven and last year he won the "davener of the year award," which happened to be the only year-long award that was given out in his class. He then repeated this feat in camp. But when he transferred to public school he went overnight from singing with twenty other kids in a class room to davening alone in a crowded kitchen as everyone is rushing to get ready for their day.)
However, for some reason it just didn't sit right with me to bribe him to daven. Maybe it's because of my own theological aversion to "slot-machine Judaism" (as I think Leibowitz described it). Or perhaps it's a practical realization that we are going to have to find creative ways to instill in him a love for performing Jewish ritual without the crowd reinforcement that other kids have and if I start now with bribes then there will be no end to it.
In any case, last week I was about to offer him a quarter if he would sit down and daven for a few minutes and suddenly I had an epiphany (or theophany, if you prefer). Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. A good deed begets a good deed. I told him that every time he davens nicely I will give him a quarter to put in a tzedakah cup and this way when we go to shul on Sunday he can put his own money into the pushka (usually I give him change from my pocket).
So far it's worked. Every morning since that day he's been adding a quarter to his cup and this morning he gleefully counted seven quarters. (He was unable to come with me to shul yesterday so he didn't get to empty out the cup yet.) I know it's only been a week, but I hope that his enthusiasm for davening + tzedaka continues. And grows. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
Of course davening in the comfort of home and with my encouragement/reminder is the easy part. I have no idea yet where even to begin with encouraging him to be frum in school. When he first started the new school I told him to go to the bathroom before lunch to perform netilat yadayim and say the bracha silently when he leaves. Here I did fall back on bribing and I told him that every time he does it he should tell us and we'll put a star on a mitzvah chart. So far that has not happened once and I stopped asking. Maybe it's too much to expect of a young boy who is still trying to navigate in a "foreign" environment, especially when it isn't his personality to tread a different path. We have to work on him to speak up when he needs to go to the bathroom to pee, forget about going to bathroom not to pee.*
But for now the davening is a good start and hopefully netilat yadayim and more will fall into place. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
* There actually is another religious boy in his class and I thought of suggesting to his father that we form a "mitzvah club" for our kids so, for example, they can remind each other and go together to do netilat yadayim. But I can't tell if his father is so concerned about these types of things, which brings up a question for another post.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Transitions from Yeshivah to Public School

David does not deal well with transitions and this should have factored into our decision to switch him to public school. This consideration should have been given even more weight since this is just a trial year and it is very possible he will have to undergo another transition come next September if we are unhappy with public school.

I'm not sure why, but for some reason this issue didn't factor much into our deliberations over whether or not we should switch schools. Part of me believes that children--even those with transition difficulties--are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They frequently undergo many transitions without adjustment difficulties but it is easy to overlook these adjustment-free transitions. Perhaps we thought that the potential benefits outweighed any transition problems? For whatever reason, this objection was pushed aside.

It is still too early to gauge how his new school is in general and in specific how his transition is proceeding. The truth is that at first glance it has not been a smooth transition and it is still hard for us to determine if he is happy. Last year he loved school. He looked forward to it every day and he couldn't wait to return after a vacation period. This year, however, I don't sense that same excited anticipation.

I've asked him on a number of occasions if he likes his new school and other occasions--and I realize this was a dangerous question--if he likes it better or worse than his old yeshivah. He always answers that he liked his yeshivah much better (and at first he wanted to know when is going back), at which point my heart sinks down into my tuchus. But when I ask for an explanation, he says that his lunch in public school is "nasty" and he misses lunches they served him in yeshivah. "Ok, but aside from lunch, do you like your new school?" He continues to respond in the negative, at which point my heart drops to my toes (even though by now I can predict his answers). He tells me that in yeshivah they had two snacks, in the morning and in the afternoon, but in public school there is only one snack. Ok, and besides lunch and snack? Well in yeshivah they had recess in the morning and the afternoon, but in public school only once a day. And gym period in public school isn't fun (it's a formal phys ed class rather than the glorified extended recess he is used to). Ok, so besides lunch, snack, recess and gym, how do the schools compare. "I don't know, but the lunch in public school is nasty." Sigh. So he is really fine in public school and he is just nitpicking about lunch, etc., or is he really unhappy overall and the only way he knows how to express it is by complaining about lunch, etc.?

So maybe he really isn't happy? Or maybe this shift in attitude was inevitable anyway as last year he was in pre-school and first grade is a very different environment. Who knows if the attitude he expressed last year would have continued had he remained in his yeshivah? Maybe it would have even been worse than public school! Indeed, the first grade class in his yeshivah is much more formal than pre-school, e.g., the children sit at their desks all day and it seems much of the day would have consisted of didactic instruction and individual assignments. Although his public school is very rigorous and academic--perhaps too much for our tastes--the classroom is modeled on some modern, fluffy educational ideas that permit the children greater freedom and variety throughout the day. Maybe he would have chaffed too much had he remained in the confines of the yeshivah's traditional classroom?

Even though I don't sense any excitement exuding from David regarding his public school, I do sometimes see signs he is enjoying it. For example, while he is having problems with math, he constantly come to us and randomly rambles some addition or subtraction equations ("do you know 4 + 4 = 8), or counts in multiples or additives (10, 20, 40, 80, 160). And every so often he "tests" me by asking ridiculous question like what's "one thousand twenty hundred six" + 83. One free afternoon he even filled up some pages in a little notepad with equations . . . out of his own volition. He showed it off to us and explained he did it so that if he forgets an answer he can look it up. He also rattles off various facts and concepts he learned in science and social studies. Finally, more and more frequently he throws out Spanish words he is learning. (His school is very strong on foreign languages.) Just this morning he suddenly listed all the colors he knows in Spanish.

So maybe all this does demonstrate excitement on his part, just in a more mature way than I am used to from pre-school? (But I am really not sure if he is genuinely excited to be learning Spanish or if he is trying to impress me, as he knows that I love it when he uses Hebrew and Russian.)

To be continued . . . ("Second Guessing")

Update: While davening this morning he asked me to teach him the rest of Ashrei (he only knows the first few lines). This is the first time since he left yeshivah that he has been willing to learn more davening, which I think is a good sign and hopefully not an exceptional occurrence. I should note that Shabbat is a different story and he is constantly learning more davening, specifically how to "finish off." He knows most of anim zmiros already and he said it in shul a few times.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teaching David Parsha; Ora Crawls

David loves to hear parsha stories. Whenever he learns about a new biblical personality he always asks if that individual is still alive. (He also frequently asks if personalities from different generations knew each other.)
Recently I was telling him a Noah story and he was puzzled how someone who was described to him last year as being dead is now suddenly alive again.
* * *
One thing I like about David's talmud torah is that he learns only the peshat of the parsha, at least as far as I can tell from the parsha sheet he brought home. I can't tell you how much of a pleasure it was not to have to see questions about that silly story of Avraham smashing his father's idols this past Friday night. Nonetheless, that story remains one of his favorite and he wouldn't let me tell him any other story at bedtime. (Just for the record, I didn't mean to denigrate the Midrash here. I just think it's a silly story to teach little kids.)
* * *
From a few hip thrusts three weeks ago, Ora is now crawling all over the apartment. We are very excited, but we have to baby proof the apartment again. It is much harder this time around because we have a lot more garbage lying around (and much less time to clean it up) as well a newly-turned-six-year-old who needs to learn to clean up after himself better.
Last week I was working from home and no matter how many times the babysitter picked her up and brought her back to the living room, Ora kept on crawling into the kitchen/office to smile at me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Frum Kids in Public School: Tutor vs. Talmud Torah

When we made the decision to remove David from the day school system it was conditional upon the ability to ensure we don't compromise on his limude kodesh. There are basically three options available to us:

1) Home schooling
2) Private tutor
3) Talmud Torah

Home schooling for limude kodesh is not an option that we considered thus far for various reasons, so we're left with talmud torah or private tutor. Each has it pros and cons.


This alone should make the choice simple. Talmud torah is relatively inexpensive whereas a private tutor can cost just as much or even more than day school tuition.


If you live in a mid-sized or larger Jewish community, there is probably a decent pool of private tutors that you can choose from. Even though the pool will shrink once you determine the equilibrium between how much you want to pay and what type of a tutor you want, there should still be enough options. And if it seems like a particular tutor is not working out you can work one-on-one with the tutor to resolve the problem or fire him and hire someone else.

Depending on the particular community, however, there may be only a few, if any, talmud torahs to choose from. Also, once your child is enrolled a talmud torah, you will probably have little input into shaping the program the way that you can with a private tutor. You will have to contend with various parties, including teachers, administrators and even other parents. (Conflicts with other parents should not be underestimated and this is an issue I really want to post about.) At that point I'd be asking myself why I removed my child from day school, where one of my biggest complaints was that parental input was not welcome (with the exception of cash input).

Communal Learning

We all know that one-on-one learning is the best modality. Or is it?

David's public school subscribes to some new-fangled, post-modern, fluffy education theories that play a large role in determining the classroom experience. I'm not sure if I agree with all the theories, but hey, who cares . . . it's free (click here).

For one part of the day the students are paired up and they read to each other. I though this was silly and not productive. But then I happened to be in the classroom when this going on and I couldn't believe my eyes. Spread out across the room were pairs of kids on the floor with one kid reading as the other followed (and corrected). While obviously for didactic and supervision purposes you want a professionally-trained and experienced adult teacher at hand, maybe there is something to the group classroom experience, when properly facilitated, that encourages children to learn--or maybe just practice--better than in isolation?


I am leaving group vs. isolation with a big question mark, although I do think that for general content and skills acquisition there is nothing better than personalized, one-on-one learning. On the other hand, there is one aspect that I am convinced is encouraged better in a group environment.

I think it is very difficult for a private tutor to foster the acquisition of ritual behaviors and a child is most likely to adopt these behaviors when they are best learned and reinforced by repeatedly joining others in performing them. Specifically I'm thinking of davening. My son has learned certain parts of davening and he should certainly be leaning more. But although we do daven at home with him at home, he won't let us introduce him to new tefillot. I'm not sure how to do this without him being in the presence of a group of twenty or thirty other kids who all davening together.


One of the criticisms of home schooling is that children are not exposed to an age-appropriate social environment. Proponents respond that there is no problem as long as parents are careful to provide appropriate extra-curricular activities in larger social groups. I think a similar criticism can in certain instances be raised against tutors for limude kodesh.

Obviously we are reconciled with David having non-religious and non-Jewish classmates and we have no problem with him befriending them in and out of school. But as much as we are open-minded in these matters, at the end of the day we identify first and foremost as (Orthodox) Jews and we do want to him to grow up recognizing that he too is an organic part of a larger community of (Orthodox) Jews. Because where we live David does not have any Jewish (Orthodox or otherwise) playmates, we like the idea that in a talmud torah he will have the opportunity to spend time with other (Orthodox) Jewish kids and hopefully develop friendships with some of them.


1) One variation that I did not discuss above is hiring a private tutor to work with a two or three children. Most importantly this is more affordable than a one-on-one tutor and perhaps the social isolation problem can this somewhat be resolved in this manner. But there are other problems, mostly practical one, with a small group tutor.

2) For various reasons (not the least of which being laziness) we chose to enroll David in a talmud torah rather than hire a private tutor. We were very excited about a particular talmud torah because (at least the way it was promoted) it was designed to avoid the avoidable pitfalls that plagued the talmud torahs of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Unfortunately from what we've seen during the short time that David has thus far attended, we are less than impressed, to say the least. But we are not giving up on it yet and we are trying to work with some other parents to get the school to live up to its advertising. If we don't see real changes being implemented over the next month or two, we will most likely hire a tutor.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fear (Updated)

Updated below.
Today David received general anaesthesia in order to undergo some tests. He was pretty good in the hospital up until the moment that they tried to put the mask over his face. He struggled for about a minute until finally the medicine kicked in and he was out. The anaesthesiologist told me that I could let go of his hand because he was asleep. I didn't realize he was already out because under the mask his face was convolutedly frozen with an expression of unimaginable fear and a sense of betrayal. I assumed he was still awake.
It took a little while to get that terrible image out of my mind.
* * *
At first David said he didn't want to leave the recovery room because the bed was so comfortable. This doesn't mean anything to readers, but hopefully when I reread this in twenty years it will jog my memory.
Rereading the post I would recharacterize the expression on his face as one of fear and some anger. The sense of betrayal I wrote about was probably (hopefully) my imagination.
One frightening part was when he started to wake up in the recovery room. His mouth started moving and he wanted to tell me something, but because he had been intubated during the test his voice was not audible. He repeated it over and over and stared getting frustrated that I wasn't responding to whatever he was saying. Finally I heard the word "oxygen" and then "want." I started getting nervous because he has asthma, which is a complicating factor during anaesthesia, and I though he was saying he wanted oxygen. After a long and scary minute I realized he was saying that he "didn't want oxygen." The oxygen tube was still on the bed and was blowing on him and he wanted me take it away.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Punishing Children With Mitzvot

Sometimes parents threaten little children with the prospect of being denied the opportunity to participate in a mitzvah. For example, "if you [fill in the blank] one more time you're going strait to bed and there's no kiddush grape juice tonight." I've always felt very uncomfortable with this type of punishment because kids should be encouraged to look forward to performing mitzvot and get to revel in the act of the mitzvah. They should never have to associate mitzvah with discipline. (I'm not sure if this makes sense, but I'm having trouble expressing myself here.)
Recently I've become even more attuned to this. Now that David attends public school I've become hypersensitive to our obligation to provide him with a thoroughly Jewish experience at home. (This really deserves further elaboration at a different time.) For about half a year our Sunday morning routine has involved going to minyan followed by a visit to the a bagel store for a plain bagel and perhaps a donut (which is a special treat for him). This morning the bagel store we usually go to was closed and I continued to drive home. David insisted that we go to another store and I tried to explain that this wasn't an option because then I would come late to work. David didn't care and he started freaking out in the back seat.
I was about to tell him that if he doesn't calm down he will have to stay home next week, but I stopped myself. That would have been a bad move because at this age I think that delayed punishments are not yet effective. But I was at the point where rational thinking no longer dictates the punishment. Nonetheless I didn't punish him from minyan next week because the last thing I want to do now is to deny him exposure to mitzvot.