Trying to Raise a Mini-Mensch

Experiencing Judaism through our toddler’s eyes

Trying to Raise a Mini-Mensch photo

To quote Captain Obvious: Parenting toddlers is hard.

Teaching them to understand kindness and compassion, why they can't wear winter boots in July, that fruit snacks are not a balanced meal, and how to process the new information and emotions they encounter daily -- it's not easy.

On top of trying to create a tiny human that is loving, dressed somewhat appropriately for the weather and doesn't spend all afternoon watching Netflix, many of us, as Jewish parents, are also trying to infuse our kids with a sense of their culture and tradition.

Long before we became parents, my husband and I merged our Jewish lives into one --combining our families around our dining room table for special occasions, observing longtime family traditions and starting new ones of our own. When the time came for us to have our own children, we knew we wanted to pass on those same values our parents had instilled in us.

When our son was born we had to figure out what that truly looked like for our family. And today, two and a half years later, we still don't quite have it all sorted out. But, like everyone else and everything else that comes with parenting, we're trying our best.

One thing that was the right choice for our family was to send our child to a wonderful Jewish early childhood program. At about a year and a half old, he came home and said "Mommy, I do the Shema" and proceeded to cover his eyes and recite the prayer. He learns about all the holidays in a toddler-ized way, and each Friday he makes a challah to bring home for Shabbat dinner, even if we don't have Shabbat dinner every Friday night -- or even most Friday nights.

This year he particularly connected to the story of Passover, told over and over in his school Haggadah, in the Rugrats Passover episode we watched five (million) times, and in slightly more abridged form around our Seder table. Beyond learning the words to songs about frogs here, there and everywhere, he understood that "Pharaoh was a bad man" and Moses was a leader. We talked about the Jewish people ("are you Jewish, Mommy?") and how they weren't always as lucky as we are today.

At school he also learns about friendship, being connected to a community and what it means to be a part of our tradition. We reinforce these traditions and rituals at home when we can and make sure to talk to him at his level about what it means to live by Jewish values, like taking care of one another and making the world a better place.

As our babies grow into toddlers, they so quickly become actual people, small in stature but with big opinions of their own -- and we can no longer expect them to mirror us in every way. I guess that's what is so exciting and so frightening about being a parent. Maybe the best we can do is hope that they've learned something good along the way.

On the really hard days, like when no t-shirt in the drawer is the "right one," when he's crying because he wanted the yellow balloon and got a blue one, when I let him watch just a little bit too much TV and eat a little too much junk food (or maybe way too much of both), I try to focus on the smaller victories. Like the time we were at a friend's baby naming, and as we desperately tried to shush him during the service he pointed to the bimah and with the biggest smile on his face told me "that's the Jewish people up there, Mommy!" Or the time he helped a friend who dropped her ball in soccer class even though he refused to wear his uniform that day. And the joy with which he sang the song about baby Moses at our seder this year -- even if the only thing he ate that night was flourless chocolate cake.

Parenting a toddler is hard. But it's also pretty darn amazing.

Making Judaism accessible for a baby or toddler is not the simplest task -- but luckily there are lots of resources out there to help. PJ Library sends free books every month that connect to the upcoming holiday, teach about Shabbat or just generally about Jewish life. jBaby Chicago hosts little kid-friendly holiday celebrations. JUF Right Start provides financial vouchers for families enrolling in Jewish early childhood programs for the first time. Local synagogues host tot services for High Holidays, welcoming young families at little to no cost. Learn more at

Read more stories in the "Bringing Up (Jewish) Baby" blog series at

"Bringing Up (Jewish) Baby" is being produced in partnership with jBaby Chicago, which helps expectant parents and families of newborns and tots (0-24 months) make connections, build friendships and engage in Jewish life in Chicago.

Bringing Up Jewish Baby Vol 2

Stefanie Bregman photo 375
Stefanie is the co-founding editor of Oy! and the assistant vice president of marketing communications at the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. She is the editor of Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, a collection of personal essays and memo... Read More

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