Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shabbat (the Sabbath) as Child's Play

(Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Recently I read an article suggesting that families should turn off their TVs for one day per week in order to reconnect with each other.  I found that amusing, given that Orthodox Jews (and many others) already do this on the Sabbath -- and not just with TV.   All of our electronic devices -- from computers to phones to iPods -- are given a day of rest. 

As I have written on this blog before, we do daycare for the 2 grandchildren of my oldest stepson.  He is not Jewish and neither are the kids.  (He was born before my wife converted to Judaism and married me.  Her kids from another marriage never followed suit).  So the grandkids are not growing up with the same house rules as my wife and I when it comes to Shabbat (the Sabbath).   

Usually we are not doing daycare on Shabbat anyway, but it sometimes happens, and the first time this occurred, the oldest boy was horrified.  (The youngest, being a baby at the time, had no opinion yet.)  He just could not imagine what to do with himself without some sort of screen to stare at all day.  "What if I turn off the volume on my Gameboy?"  He asked.  No deal.  "How about if I go into the other room?  Or outside?"  Nope.   I explained that the Sabbath is not about how loud something is, it's about retreating from the weekday world, and that while he is in our house, he follows our rules.   He was sure he would die of boredom, and at first it seemed so -- but not forever.  Now he actually enjoys a Shabbat visit.

So what on earth do we do without all those gadgets?  Aside from prayers, meals, and other ritual activities, we play board games, card games, do jigsaw puzzles, take nature walks, play with non-electronic toys -- and read.   It is this latter activity that has really caught on with the kids.  It began with me reading stories out loud, and talking about how when you watch a movie, you watch somebody else's ideas about the characters, but when you read, you go on a journey in your own mind.  He didn't get it at first, but now, a few years later, he is such an avid reader that sometimes when he is here on a weekday he actually turns off the TV to read a book!  The last time I took him to Cub Scouts (about a half hour drive) he spent the whole time reading a new book he had just checked out of the library. 

I've also noticed that when he and his younger brother (now 3) play with Legos and other non-electronic toys, their play is much more creative.  All of those chattering toys that talk, buzz, beep, roar, or otherwise make electronic sounds are also no-nos on the Sabbath -- and quite frankly, the kids tire of them rather soon anyway, because they are so repetitious.  (And ubiquitous -- nowadays it's really hard to find toys that do not do this.)  Even on weekdays, the first thing the 3-year-old does is dump out the box of non-electronic cars, dinosaurs, blocks and Legos. 

He also loves paging through books and even though he can't yet read words, he spends hours looking at the pictures.  He looks for -- and recognizes -- any new books added to the children's shelf since last visit.  (Most of these we get at the thrift store, so that if he tears pages or spills on any of them, it's not big deal.  You do not want to be saying "no" or scolding a toddler about damaging his books, or you will kill his interest.  You should, however, teach him how to respect and care for books.)

All of this suggests that turning off your TV and other gadgets on a regular basis is a very good idea.  I would even go so far as to say that the Sabbath may well contribute to the high literacy rate among Jews.  At the very least, it helps us connect better when the family around the Sabbath table -- not a TV screen -- is the focus of our attention.   Try it sometime.