During my first year as director, we had a staff meeting where an outside consultant brought a deck of cards, each with an inspirational message or intention. I selected a card with a simple message: “Expect the Best.” This card has remained on my office bulletin board for seven years, providing me with a focus, an intention, and a reminder. This card prods me to expect the best in myself, in my staff, in parents, and in our children. What does it mean to expect the best? Did this mean to demand perfection and establish unrealistic expectations for myself? Sometimes. But mostly expecting the best has meant to me what Emily Dickinson so beautifully describes in the words: “I dwell in possibility.”
As I sit to write my last “Nursery News” I am overwhelmed by all that has been possible here at the JCC. I dwell in how far the reality of my experience has exceeded my expectations, even while I expected the best. I dwell in the wondrous community that has surrounded me for these many years at the JCC. I dwell in the satisfaction with all that we have accomplished here on the 2nd floor and far beyond – watching children grow, flourish, spread their wings, and sometimes aim directly into the heart of difficult questions about God, about death, about meaning, and about our purpose. These profound questions that the children ask continue to inspire and feed me. Their dreams, their poetry, their compassion, their wonder at the smallest details in our world, and their struggles to uncover themselves and learn from their friends has taught me so much about how I want to be on this earth. Children arrive with such profound wisdom, and I fear we adults can slowly squash it. Aided by our impatience, our urge to supplant their ideas with our “rationality,” and natural development that can and must occur, our children’s perspective begins to shift and be influenced by constraints and conventions. But, if we can continue to learn from our children, we will allow this wisdom to inform us and in some ways we ourselves will stay young.
Teaching is often the best way of learning and during my time at the JCC I have had the opportunity to learn so very much through my teaching. When I write my weekly newsletters, when I supervise teachers, and when I counsel parents, I am reminded of what is important. I am given the chance to consolidate what I know. As I articulate what I know to be true and as I share these thoughts with such remarkable families, teachers and colleagues, my understandings have been challenged, deepened and refined. I have been blessed by co-thinkers and co-dreamers and for this I am grateful.
There is no way to summarize all that I have learned in my years at the JCC but because I feel that this is my last chance to try to share what I have learned in this format, I thought worth taking a stab at sharing some of it with you, and again, learning it one more time for myself.
- Our children are made in the image of God. Whether you believe in God or not, it is a core Jewish sensibility that our children are made unique, full of potential and good in the deepest sense. It is our job as parents and educators to see this godliness in our children. It is our job to see our children as they want to be at their best. It is our job to remember that our children are not empty containers for us to fill but rather they are lamps to be kindled, flames to spark, precious vessels to care for and honor.
- Our children do not need the grown-ups in their lives to be perfect. We have very high expectations for ourselves as parents and can be critical for the many ways in which we fall short. And while of course we want to “expect the best” from ourselves, it is useful to remember a term coined by psychoanalyst Dr. Donald Winnicott, of the “good enough” parent. We should of course do our best but we should also model what it means to be a human being who makes mistakes. What would it look like if instead of holding ourselves to the high standard of being perfect we thought about striving as hard to teach what it looks like when we mess up – by listening when we hurt another person, by working on getting better and reflecting on how we might grow, by sharing our disappointment when we do not get it right and by not beating up on ourselves too harshly. Wouldn’t it be great if we made the curriculum of making mistakes as important a lesson as any other?
- Our children are resilient . I remember that first time when my eldest daughter was an infant, lying in the middle of my queen size bed. I quickly went to the bathroom and as I re-entered the room I witnessed her make her first double flip and fall flat on the floor below. I quickly lifted her up and for the next several days watched with care, petrified that somehow she had gotten more severely damaged then her initial short cry might have indicated. But there were no long-term effects; she didn’t even show a scrape or a bruise. But I, as her mother, continued to watch her with concern. This experience is a metaphor for our lives as parents: while we may check and recheck for damage, our children do not break easily. They were built to survive and challenges can help prepare our children for future obstacles.
- Rituals and routines are necessary for children and for parents . Our children need boundaries and they need a sense of the walls around them to feel safe. Sometimes when we erect these limits we may be temporarily less popular – what child wants to be told it is time to go to sleep or that they can’t have that 10th piece of candy? But if we can feel confident about the importance of these limits we can present them in gentle but firm ways. Our children will begin to understand that our job is to keep them safe and to take care of them (that is, until they reach adolescence!). The more children can predict these boundaries, and the more they know what is expected of them on a daily or weekly basis, the less conflict there will be over time as they begin to internalize these rhythms. On the positive side, if we can find ways to infuse joy, meaning, and context into our daily and weekly routines, our lives will be enriched. We do not want our lives to become reduced to chores, nagging, constraints and getting through our days. For my family, the rhythms and traditions of the Jewish calendar have added richness to our lives – Shabbat, holidays and blessings all serve important places in our home. Building traditions within our homes, even though they will inevitably evolve as our children age, helps us to anchor our lives.
- Give back. This period when one is a parent of young children can be a time of self-absorption. Our lives are in an instant transformed by the arrival of a child. Our child’s eating, pooping, sleeping and cooing all bring endless fascination, joy and sometimes terror. I can still recall a low moment when my daughter was 5 days old (I was a post-partum hormonal mess) and I fell apart. My husband came in to console me and I burst into tears and said, “I don’t have time to talk about it, I have only about 15 minutes to get myself together before she wants to nurse again!” In fact, even with a newborn, I had more time than I feared, but our children’s demands feel so urgent, so immediate, and so consuming. And while it is our job to care for our children’s immediate needs it is also important that we don’t get too lost in this mush! We need to be connected to a broader community. We need to remember that we are so blessed, so privileged, and so responsible for the repair of this broken world. Even with young children, there are ways to give back – there are ways to do community service with your children, there are ways to support causes you care about with your time, your money and your resources, there may even be a neighbor in your building who could use a friendly visit or your help picking up a quart of milk at your local grocery. There are family and friends who also need you. We want to raise children who see themselves as enmeshed in this larger world and we do this through our own actions.
- Educate every child in their own way. The Torah teaches us that an important lesson for teachers and parents is meeting each child where they are. For those of us with more than one child, we can acutely feel the wisdom of this lesson. For we know that each child is different, that each arrives with different strengths and different struggles. The challenge as a parent is to teach each child, as they are. This is not easy; for we too learn and understand the world in different ways. There is not a “one-size fits all” model for parenting. Every family is different and every child is different. And the more we can listen to our internal voice (the sane one!) that guides us as parents, the more we will be able to authentically meet our children’s unique needs.
- Practice gratitude. In Jewish tradition we are taught that we are supposed to say 100 blessings a day. For observant Jews, this would be a natural by-product of praying three times a day, saying a blessing before and after each meal, and at other prescribed times throughout the day. But for the rest of us, this is indeed a big stretch! I had a yoga teacher who used to remind his class: “if you can’t feel gratitude, change your attitude.” Feeling grateful is a core Jewish value. Appreciating the blessings of all that we have in our lives helps us to savor and to be more alive in the present. There are times in our lives when it is easier to feel this abundance – and often when we are in a narrow place we struggle to see beyond the constricted space in which we find ourselves. But it is especially at those moments when blessings can be revealed, if we are in a place to see them.
Our tradition says that God appears when one thing ends and another thing begins: when a baby is born, when a child transitions and becomes an adult, when Shabbat enters and then again departs, and when one sets out on a journey. For all of us, this is a time of coming and going. For your children it is a time of endings in the classroom and of beginning a new adventure this summer and again in the coming school year. For parents it is a time of transition as the summer approaches and new changes come next fall. For our school this is a time of transition as I leave my role as director and as Noah begins. And personally, it is a time of transition as I leave the JCC, a place that has been filled with abundant blessings for me and for my family. I have loved my time at the JCC. I have been blessed by every one of you who has touched my life. I have grown to be the parent and professional that I am because of my experiences here at the JCC, and I will miss this place in a profound way. My hope and prayer for all of us is “Baruch atah b’voeacha, baruch atah b’tsetecha” – “Blessed may you be in your coming in and blessed may you be in your going out.” May all of our journeys be gentle ones, filled with blessings and meaning.
Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master's Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children.
Latest posts by Ilana Ruskay-Kidd (see all)
- Gratitude - October 31, 2014
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