If your child is a patrilineal Jew or a person of color, they may be assumed to not be Jewish. How can you build a strong identity for them?
A wonderful couple I know has five grown children who are interracial and intercultural. Their Chinese mom converted before marriage. The couple raised their children Jewish and Chinese. Yes, the children got asked questions like, “Are you adopted?” “Is your mother Jewish?” “How come you’re in a synagogue; do you want to convert?”
But this wise couple early on anticipated what was in store for their kids and they prepared them. They knew the kids would be asked questions when the parents were not around to step in. They wanted their kids to feel strong ownership of their Jewish identities.
Their family has an interfaith element in that all of mom’s side of the family is not Jewish. Some of the five siblings have married non-Jewish spouses and are raising Jewish kids – just like Mom and Dad did.
The systematic teaching of the children to be confident and comfortable as Chinese Jews was brilliant. It reminded me of some of my African American friends who have told me, “I’ll teach my kids what to expect in the white world. I’LL be the voice they hear; they’ll be ready for racist ignorance.”
Dad spoke at a program about how to raise confident Jewish Chinese children. One of his daughters refers to her parents instructions as “The Fire Drill”; meaning that they were prepared for the possibility ofan identity-challenging situation at all times. They were coached on what kinds of questions can come out of nowhere and how to answer them. Just like a sudden fire, they knew what to do to be safe and secure.
Dad happens to be a psychiatrist so he has scientific support for his child rearing practices. Here are his parenting tips for parents of children who are likely to have their Jewish identity challenged.
No two children are identical. Some kids are shy, some bold. You have to teach each of your children according to their temperament. When asked, “are you Jewish?” one child may be coached to say, ‘You should ask my mom’ and another might prefer to say, ‘I don’t answer personal questions’ and a third might simply roll their eyes and stomp off.
As parents, be comfortable with who you are. Your kids look to you to take the temperature of the room, a stranger, a situation.
Don’t express gratuitous negativity. You may be annoyed or even quite angry at the comment or behavior of an adult, but you don’t need to taint your child’s world with that.
Put your children first. Ask yourself, how will my choice impact my child?
As parents, present a united front to your children. Don’t have different messages about identity from parent 1 and parent 2.
Don’t ask your children to search for an identity; give them one. You tell them what their identity is. Your calm statement will override what they hear outside their home.
Kids don’t really begin to abstract* until the teenage years, late teenage years. They don’t really understand choices. Take responsibility for making decisions for them.
*Consider (something) theoretically or separately from something else
Identity is a precognitive issue (a gut knowledge). It’s a foundation kids absorb by just being alive.
- who they are
- where they fit into the world
- where they start from
As their parents, give them all of that.
Parents need to be prepared. “We thought of scenarios and prepared our kids for them. Forewarned is forearmed.”
We socialized with family and friends that supported us and our children’s identities.
Dr. Dad taught his kids:
*You owe nobody an explanation. No one has the right to question you about who you are or where you come from.
*Others don’t define you; we (your parents) define you. If people treat you “that way” they are just wrong. You’re not the one that’s wrong; they are.