On The Difficult Question Of Teaching Our Faith To Our Children

On The Difficult Question Of Teaching Our Faith To Our Children

What fills me with the most nervousness about homeschooling isn’t the stuff I don’t know (I can teach myself fifth grade math), but the weighty task of an education in faith.
Bethany Mandel

With my oldest daughter turning four years old, the age where we begin homeschooling in earnest is looming. One of the biggest obstacles to homeschooling is quite simple: how do I teach what I do not know? My math and Hebrew skills will only be passable for the first few years of instruction. I will be working on those.

The method we plan on using, named after the educator whose writing it is based on, Charlotte Mason, suggests hours of outdoors activity per day, complete with keeping a nature journal. Thus, I’ve begun keeping my own nature journal, trying to teach myself art and “outdoorsy” stuff, like the names of plants, trees, and birds. Mason also recommends art appreciation and handicrafts in the curriculum, which means I’ve been teaching myself that as well.

A Desire for ‘A Liberal Education’

Although I attended relatively good schools, I am struck by how inadequate my education was in so many areas. In his biography of Winston Churchill, Martin Gilbert paraphrased a letter Churchill sent home to his mother about why, at age 21, he planned to hire a tutor for himself. Churchill said, “The desultory reading I have so far indulged in has only resulted in a jumble of disconnected & ill-assorted facts.”

Gilbert goes on to paraphrase Churchill: “Something ‘more literary and less material would be the sort of mental medicine I need.’ All his life, he explained… he had received a ‘purely technical’ education aimed at passing some approaching examination. ‘As a result my mind has never received the polish which for instance Oxford or Cambridge gives. At these places one studies questions and sciences with a rather higher object than mere practical utility. One receives in fact a liberal education.”

That liberal education is precisely what I intend to impart on my children and what drew me to the Charlotte Mason method. What fills me with the most nervousness about homeschooling isn’t the stuff I don’t know (I can teach myself fifth grade math), but the weighty task of an education in faith. Not just how to parse through the week’s Torah portion or how to pray using a Hebrew prayer book, but actual faith.

‘He Can Present the Idea of God to the Soul of the Child’

I was raised by an agnostic Catholic mother (my Jewish father was largely absent, yet I adopted his faith as my own) and was never given any solid instruction in religion, let alone faith. I was told as a child that Jews were “people of the Book,” and not realizing what “the Book” was, I assumed it referred to the bookishness of the many Jewish people I knew. I loved books, and thus declared myself Jewish. My mother went along with my pronouncement, but did little in the way of educating me in either Judaism or Catholicism.

Despite being raised somewhat adrift religiously, I found myself holding a strong belief in God. It came in the form of seeing sunsets, at ultrasound appointments for my children in which every single component necessary for life fell into place perfectly. Life and beauty are no accident, of this I am sure. But the question remained: how does one teach faith?

Recently, while reading Mason’s first volume in her homeschooling series, entitled “Home Education,” I got my answer. Mason writes,

But what can the parent do? Just this, and no more: he can present the idea of God to the soul of the child. Here, as throughout his universe, Almighty God works by apparently inadequate means. Who would say that a bee can produce apple trees? Yet a bee flies from an apple tree laden with the pollen of its flowers: this it unwittingly deposits on the stigmas of the flowers of the next tree it comes to. The bee goes, but the pollen remains, but with all the length of the style between it and the immature ovule below. That does not matter; the ovule has no power to reach the pollen grain, but the latter sends forth a slender tube, within the tube of the style; the ovule is reached; behold, then, the fruit, with its seed, and, if you like, future apple trees! Accept the parable: the parent is little better in this matter than the witless bee; it is his parent to deposit, so to speak, within reach of the soul of the child some fruitful idea of God; the immature soul makes no effort towards that idea, but the living Word reaches down, touches the soul, – and there is life; growth and beauty, flower and fruit.

Is it really that simple? I wondered. You just present the idea of God, without explanation, and the child just intrinsically knows?

We’ve presented the idea in various ways: we tell our children HaShem (a name for God in Judaism) put a baby in mommy’s belly along with their father; that daddy talks to HaShem when he prays and thanks him for all of our good health and more; we ask HaShem to help whomever is in an ambulance speeding by to help them get better soon. But we’ve never actually explained what, or who, exactly HaShem is. Are we doing an adequate job?

Then our daughter answered us. While looking at photos of my husband and me before our children were born, she informed him “This was before me and my brothers were born, before we were in mommy’s belly, when we were still with HaShem.”

Sunsets and the way human life, in all its complexities, exists is for me proof of God alone. Yet my not even four-year-old daughter provided another proof of his existence: by merely presenting the idea of God alone, without further explanation, she knows him. His role in the universe and in her life is already imprinted on her brain and in her soul.

I’ve come to realize how much personal growth and learning I must do to be an adequate homeschool mother. I’ve come to realize, though, that on faith, it may be my children doing some of the teaching.

Bethany Mandel is a stay-at-home mother of three children under four and a writer on politics and culture. She is a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, and a contributor at Acculturated. She lives with her husband, Seth, in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark.

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