Each Friday morning, children and families arriving to school at the Bernice B. Godine JCC Early Learning Center are greeted with the smell of fresh challah and are invited to take a small taste of the warm bread.

created at: 2013-09-30

My office sits next to the entrance to the preschool, and I’ve come to anticipate both the glee that Friday morning challah brings, and the oft-repeated conversations of parents and caregivers Mondays through Thursdays, patiently explaining to eager toddlers and preschoolers: “There’s no challah today, sweetie. It’s Tuesday.” These repeated exchanges illustrate for me at least a few important points about toddler development:

Toddlers learn through the five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting.

Spiritual practices that engage the senses have the greatest impact. Toddlers who cannot yet articulate the word “challah” recognize it by sight, taste and smell. A simple song like “Shabbat Shalom (Bim Bam)” indicates that “Shabbat is Here!” (another musical hit with the toddler and preschool set).

It doesn’t take much to make a big impact.

But it does take repetition and routine. I’ve heard many a toddler sing “Happy Birthday” to the Shabbat candles. If Shabbat candles were as common as birthday candles, it would be the opposite.

Young children have not yet developed a sense of time.

“Yesterday,” “next week” and “Friday” are not yet meaningful concepts. Harried parents already know this—think of the futility of telling your toddler you need to leave in five minutes, or 10. Toddlers live fully in the “now,” in the present (an enviable spiritual state, but frustrating when you are late for work!). Ritual is one way we help mark time for young children. Repetitive ritual creates consistency and feelings of safety and security.

What children (of all ages) want and need most of all is the whole-hearted attention of loving and caring parents and caregivers.

The Sabbath gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and everyday stresses, and stop being productive. Whether you make challah from scratch using your great-grandmother’s beloved recipe or can barely manage to defrost a mini bagel from the freezer, who you are, right now, is more than enough.

My fifth point speaks not to what is developmentally appropriate for toddlers, but rather what is “developmentally appropriate” for families with toddlers:

It’s natural that parents of young children feel that they have little time for themselves, or for their partners.

Taking time for yourself as an individual helps you to be the loving parent and loving person you wish to be.

Everyone tells you to get more sleep and exercise. I want to encourage you to pay attention to your intellectual and spiritual needs. Make time to talk with peers and with your partner about what matters most, not just about what’s most urgent. These are the conversations that strengthen your family and feed your soul, and if you’re partnered, will remind you of why you fell in love in the first place.

Each fall I meet with parents of young children in the 10-week course Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. It’s never simple for individuals or couples to carve out time to take the class—even with the free on-site babysitting—but once there, they find that the Jewish wisdom we explore can transform their personal and family journeys.

Rabbi Julie Zupan serves as the Jewish Family Educator for the Early Learning Centers of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston and is on the staff of Reform Jewish Outreach Boston. She is an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a 10-week course offered by Hebrew College. Rabbi Zupan can be reached at rabbizupan@hotmail.com.