This week’s Torah portion follows Jacob and Esav as they prepare to reunite with one another decades after Jacob stole Esav’s birthright. As Jacob prepares for his encounter with Esav, the language in the text indicates that a war is coming as Jacob expresses fear and distress and even splits his camp expecting that Esav’s followers will attack him. However, when they reunite they surprisingly embrace each other, cry, and introduce each other's families to one another.
When I read this dramatic scene, I not only think about the forgiveness and mercy Jacob and Esav had for one another, but more importantly, the lessons they taught their children and followers in embracing one another. Yes, Jacob and Esav made peace, but they did so in front of hundreds of children, family members, and followers who all learned about the importance of making peace rather than fighting. Perhaps there is value in examining how our children perceive our actions.
Last week, the famous children’s author and illustrator, Mo Willems (author of the “Piggie and Gerald” and “Angry Pigeon” series) was profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about his work and values as a parent. In the interview, Willems shared:
If you want your kid to be a better human, the way to do it is to be a better human. There’s a time in every kid’s life when they’re still drawing every day and playing basketball every day. Then there’s a day when they stop drawing and keep playing basketball. They keep playing basketball because their parents do, and their parents don’t draw. At some point they’re like: That can’t be cool because my parents don’t do it.” You don’t think you’re cool, but if your kid says, “Dad will you play with me?” and you say “Not now I’m drawing,” that kid is going to start drawing because that is cool to them.
When I read this piece of the interview, I was not thinking about drawing or basketball. I was immediately hoping that my own children notice the times when I am reading books, engaging in Jewish practice, or helping organize our home more than they notice me on my phone. I read this article and immediately worried that my own children might think using an iPhone is what is “cool!”
In my previous blog posts, I’ve drilled home the message that our students and children continuously learn from our behavior and actions. They often learn more from what we do than what we say. I’m returning to this topic because of how powerful I believe it is, particularly in the age of smartphones. I, and the rest of our parent community, were lucky enough to not have grown up in the age of connected devices. When I remember asking my parents to play with me, the answer was often yes, and when it wasn’t yes, it was usually because something important had to get done. My mom had to grade tests at the dining room table (and I clearly thought that was cool!). I remember my father studying for an equivalency exam and inviting me to quiz him on questions, which I also thought was pretty neat! Other times when they weren’t available to me it was because of their shared responsibilities around the house. Certainly, I was disappointed when my parents couldn’t hang out with me, but I learned the value of hard work and responsibility from them by virtue of them showing and sharing with me what their priorities were.
Students, especially our youngest students, look up to our teachers tremendously. During class, teachers are singularly focused on leading students through a series of activities and guiding them towards fulfilling learning experiences. They watch teachers cheer up students who are sad, and redirect students who might be unruly. It’s not unsurprising to me that when I go into a Kindergarten or 1st grade classroom and I ask students what they want to be when they grow up, almost half the time students share back with me that “teacher” is at the top of their career goals. Being a teacher is cool to students because teachers have a visible impact on the world of the student.
At school, a student will rarely catch me or another teacher staring at our phone. When we do, it’s often because we are trying to communicate with another teacher in the school to coordinate something for students. At home, however, I will admit that I feel guilty about how often my own children catch me on the phone when they are trying to get my attention or interact with me.
I often catch myself in a mode of my own children asking me for my attention or asking to play with me and the phrases I keep repeating are “one minute” or “I will be just one second, I just need to finish this one thing.” Indeed the demands of being a head of school require that I and other administrators be “connected” more often than we might like.
It’s unrealistic that we will be able to put our phones away completely, especially as our world becomes increasingly centered on the applications that power our purchases and routines. But I can’t help thinking that there might be something we can do to model better behavior for our children. This weekend, as I read the upcoming Torah portion and reflected on the remarkable example Esav and Jacob were to their children, I thought to myself, why don’t I tell my own children what I am doing more when I am on my phone, rather than just continuously ask for their patience until I can give them my undivided attention? When they ask me if I can play with them or if I can take them on a bike ride, why don’t I tell them, “That sounds like a great idea, I just need to finish speaking with a teacher so I can help them figure out how to prepare a great class for their students tomorrow,” or, “I am just talking to some other parents so we can support their student in feeling comfortable in the classroom.”
Maybe some of you who are reading this blog are lightyears ahead of me on this front. But for those of you who are like me and wish you could be more present, I want to invite you to model like our ancestors did before us, what being a good human being looks like by being explicit with your children about what we are doing with our time.