Many parents don't think of themselves as Jewish teachers.
Yet toddlers learn by observation and imitation. So parents are very important and influential teachers, whether we know it or not.
This is especially true at holidays.
Children can begin building Jewish skills and memories as early as age 1-1/2. Shabbat, Sukkot, Chanukah, Pesach and the High Holy Days provide abundant informal learning opportunities for toddlers. Here are some lessons we learned from our experiences with our son Nathan, now 2 1/2.
Introduce holidays well in advance of the actual date. Read books, talk, sing songs and review specialized vocabulary. Explain as you shop, cook, clean, practice and decorate. Mirror your child's excitement and share your own.
Foreshadow the end of the holiday too; don't let it evaporate suddenly. "Tonight we lit three candles. Each night we light one more candle than we lit the night before. On the last night of Chanukah, we'll light all eight candles. After that we'll put the chanukiah away until next year."
Focus on tangibles: At the age of 18 to 21 months, our son could remember objects he had touched and seen; he watched and imitated adults' actions.
Reinforce Jewish holiday concepts by identifying Jewish objects at home, in Jewish gift shops and in museums.
A recent catalog from "The Source for Everything Jewish" depicts many recognizable objects such as the Torah, menorah, dreidel, tzedakah (charity) box and mezzuzot. Leaf through such catalogs with your toddler, identifying Jewish objects together. Then give the catalog to the child as a gift: Turning pages "all by myself" helps review Jewish objects.
Physical movement is another effective mode for teaching. Long before he could sing on pitch, our son would spin around the room yelling the dreidel song, "Sivivon, sov sov sov." He remembers the words a year later.
A refrain parents hear often is "I want my own": Give children their own ritual objects, or representative toys for imitative play-Torah, shofar, lulav, etrog, chanukiah, dreidel.
Starting at 1-1/2, our son improvised ritual objects on his own. Cardboard tubes (from paper towels) became a shofar, Torah, Torah pointer, Shabbat candles, kiddush cup and wine bottle. A magazine became a siddur (prayerbook). Be alert for your child's imaginative transmutations, and applaud them.
Chanukah offers memorable opportunities to learn by participation and imitation. The most exciting activity for our child (and perhaps most children) is lighting the candles. Give everyone the experience of lighting their own chanukiah each night.
First the adults light, then my son and I hold the shamash together and light his own chanukiah. He's especially wide-eyed when guests bring their own chanukiot — a table full of burning candles evokes almost more excitement than he can contain.
Tell the personal stories associated with various objects. For instance: "My Bubbe Dinah and Papa Morris gave me this chanukiah when I was 7 years old; they brought it back from Israel. This year you will light the candles in it; I will help you."
Such stories reinforce the links that bind history, ritual and family into a coherent whole.
Adults need to maintain a sense of authenticity: Sweet childhood memories are not the primary purpose of Jewish holidays, though they are an important byproduct. We let our adult celebration of the holiday drive our son's experience rather than tailor the experience for him.
Reducing the Jewish holidays to mere children's games diminishes their power to challenge and inspire adults. I want to create a never-ending cycle of celebration that will reveal ever deeper meaning as we all grow in years and in wisdom. Our children deserve that upward spiral; it is a perpetual gift. "Dumbing down" the holidays guarantees that kids will outgrow the holidays by early adulthood. Instead, give them tools that will last their whole lives.
Children sense when rituals are hollow and when they are genuine — they know when we're "doing it for the kids" and when we're playing for keeps. I play for keeps, and hope children absorb that attitude from my example.
The most important fact that children can learn is that Jewish holiday rituals have real value for adults. The sweet memories will follow automatically.