To Kindle a Soul:
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers
By Lawrence Kelemen

A bestselling author & noted Jewish educator gives us effective Jewish parenting through the Torah's eternal wisdom in this beautifully written book.

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Love, Attention, and Affection

I will never forget the night when one traditional Jewish scholar spoke about the centrality of love. While his students sat beside him ready to absorb that evening’s instruction, their teacher lifted a worn volume of the Torah, opened it, and began to read: “See that I [God] have placed before you life and good, and death and evil; and I am commanding you to love...” The elderly scholar paused, his eyes closed, deep in thought. Then, with his eyes still closed, he repeated, “I have placed before you life... and I am commanding you to love.” He brought the book closer to his eyes, squinted to see the tiny print, and read from the eleventh-century commentary of the Spanish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: “This verse teaches us that life is for love.” The Talmudic master closed his eyes for a moment. Then he repeated, “Life is for love.” Every creature has its purpose, and ours is to forge relationships, to create closeness.

Learning to Love

We all notice that newborn animals are far more physically mature and independent than newborn children. A kitten is ambulatory shortly after birth, as is a foal, but a newborn child does not walk for almost a year. Children need another nine months of gestation, outside of the womb, to achieve the maturity most animals possess at birth.

Traditional Jewish scholars see profound meaning in this difference between animals and people. Gestation, they believe, prepares a creature for its job in this world, but a person cannot be prepared for his most essential job - loving - when he is alone in the womb. Preparation for love must take place through contact with others, out here in the world with other people. According to the 3,300 year old Jewish tradition, we are meant to love, and we leave the womb early only to train for this assignment.

Psychologists recently discovered the same truth. Dr. John Bowlby, the British psychologist and founder of Attachment Theory, told members of the American Psychiatric Association in 1986, “The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature, already present in germinal form in the neonate and continuing through adult life into old age.” In 1998, Dr. Michael Orlans, founding executive board member of the American Psychotherapy Association, announced findings that “human babies are born earlier in the growth cycle than other mammals” and “extrogestation [out-of-womb gestation] lasts, on average, the same amount of time as in utero gestation.” Dr. Orlans further explained that the “significant brain development” of extrogestation occurs as a direct result of “interactive routines between caregiver and infant.” Children do their final “wiring” when we love them; and, minimally, love means providing them with attention and affection.


The first step in loving a child is being sensitive to his needs and attending to them. This is not an easy task. Indeed, many new parents are shocked by how difficult it is to sustain sensitivity and attentiveness throughout the day and night. We have no choice, however, since attentiveness, and all the love it represents, is crucial to our child’s development.

Cultivating Psychological Resilience

When we are attentive to a child’s needs, we create a sense of security and confidence — what psychologists call attachment - and this provides the internal strength children need to handle stress later in life. “Secure attachments are a primary defense against the development of severe psychopathology associated with adversity and trauma,” writes Dr. Terry Levy, president of the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children. When researchers in New Jersey evaluated attachment levels in one-year-old boys and then followed the children for several years, they found that 40% of the insecurely attached boys showed later signs of psychopathology, compared to only 6% of the securely attached boys. Studies also demonstrate that securely attached children who break down under extraordinary adversity tend to rebound and recover, while insecurely attached children generally have difficulty healing psychologically.

Cultivating Self-Esteem

Research also links self-esteem to attentive parenting. Moreover, not only do attentive parents produce sons and daughters who enjoy greater self-esteem than other children, this positive self-image persists up to twenty years later. In one study of women raised in Islington, England, investigators found that children raised by more responsive parents were twice as likely to have a positive self-image in their adult years as those raised by less responsive parents. And children who feel good about themselves have higher aspirations, do better in school, earn higher salaries when they grow up, and handle stress more effectively than children with low self-esteem.

Investigators differ over how attentive parenting bolsters self-esteem. Some argue that children who are ignored feel unworthy of their parents’ attention. Other researchers suggest that children who are ignored feel overwhelmed by circumstances and slip into helplessness, which in turn feeds low self-esteem.

Cultivating Security

Parents sometimes worry that attentive parenting undermines independence and confidence. The opposite is true, however. “Children who experience consistent and considerable gratification of needs in the early stages do not become ‘spoiled’ and dependent,” writes Dr. Terry Levy. “They become more independent, self-assured, and confident.” Professor Donald Routh, director of clinical training at the University of Miami Department of Psychology, similarly observes, “At least naively, we might suppose that infants who are very closely attached to their mothers might grow into excessively dependent children. Research points to the opposite conclusion, however.” Children cry less frequently and for shorter duration after their first nine months when caregivers respond promptly during the child’s first nine months. Conversely, children who do not receive enough attention early on tend to be clingy, suffer from separation anxiety, and respond with panic when pushed to explore the world or when left in the hands of an unfamiliar caregiver.

In a presentation to the psychiatric staff of the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Dr. John Bowlby summarized what we now know about the link between attentive parenting and secure children:

Studies of adolescents and young adults, as well as of school children of different ages from nursery school up, [indicate] that those who are most emotionally stable and make the most of their opportunities are those who have parents who, whilst always encouraging their children’s autonomy, are nonetheless available and responsive when called upon. Unfortunately, of course, the reverse is also true.

Nighttime Care

Although our children always need our sensitive responses, they especially need them at night. The combination of drowsiness and darkness makes children feel particularly vulnerable. We have to make special efforts to be attentive to nighttime distress.

The effect of ignoring children’s nighttime cries was tragically illustrated during the only modern, cultural experiment in which children were voluntarily secluded from their parents during sleeping hours. Beginning in the 1930s, parents living on Israel’s secular kibbutzim1 elected to sleep their children away from home in communal children’s facilities. The small staff size at these facilities made it impossible to attend promptly to every cry, but the early pioneers of the kibbutz movement hoped that their children would adjust to the less attentive arrangement.

The ill-fated trial produced horrendous results. A barrage of studies found that the graduates of kibbutz children’s facilities suffered disproportionately from a range of psychological disorders, including attachment deprivation traumas, major depression, schizophrenia, low self-esteem, and alcohol and drug problems. By 1994, more than half of all children on Israeli kibbutzim exhibited symptoms and psychopathologies associated with insecure attachment. Professor Carlo Schuengel, an investigator from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, echoed the findings of many earlier researchers when he identified the cause of the psychological disintegration kibbutz children experienced: “Although collective sleeping may allow for sufficient monitoring of children’s safety, it leaves children with only a precarious and limited sense of security.

As data poured in revealing the damage that had been done by children’s sleeping facilities, kibbutz leaders abandoned the experiment. The last of the kibbutzim’s 260 children’s facilities was finally closed in 1998. Professor Ora Aviezer, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Child Development at the University of Haifa, summarized the disaster:

Research results indicate that collective sleeping arrangements for children negatively affect socio-emotional development in the direction of a more anxious and restrained personality. Collective sleeping was abolished as it became clear that it did not serve the emotional needs of most kibbutz members. Its disappearance demonstrates the limits of adaptability of parents and children to inappropriate child-care arrangements.

The “Modern” Cry-It-Out Sleep-Training Program

Frighteningly, some children in the West are being exposed to just such inappropriate child-care arrangements today in their own homes. The “cry-it-out” sleep-training program offers parents an effective alternative to the hassles of nighttime childcare. Behavioral psychologists behind the plan have demonstrated that infants whose nighttime cries are not answered really do stop crying within as little as three days. Although the program has been touted as “a new, revolutionary method for teaching children to sleep through the night,” it constitutes no more than a revival of the disastrous kibbutz experiment, and what it really teaches children is despair.

People are attracted to the cry-it-out method for the same reason they are attracted to many other destructive childraising techniques: It offers a quick behavioral fix. However, intelligent educators take into account the long-term effects of every childraising strategy. Ignoring a child’s nighttime cries might eventually produce quiet, but it does not cultivate security. Thus, children trained with the cry-it-out method were found to wake more often throughout the night, sleep less efficiently, and walk around with more daytime tiredness than children attended to by their parents. Moreover, children deprived of nighttime comfort are at risk for all the psychopathologies discovered among children who slept in kibbutz children’s homes.

An Attentive Sleep-Training Program

Training children to sleep through the night in a healthy and safe fashion requires distinguishing between five different types of cries:

  1. Occasional nighttime whimpers can be ignored. All normal infants make such noises during the night and do not necessarily need attention.
  2. Tantrums can also be ignored. These cries sound more angry than distressed.
  3. If a child cries loudly because he is afraid or lonely, then patting, massaging, or just lightly shaking his crib is usually sufficient to ease him back to sleep.
  4. If a child cries hysterically out of distress, he needs to be picked up and held for a period until he feels more calm, at which point he can be nursed, patted, or massaged back to sleep.
  5. If the child is hungry he needs to be nursed back to sleep. If he is wet he needs to be changed and then nursed, patted, or massaged back to sleep.

A child might need to consistently experience this sort of attentive nighttime care for several months in order to become secure enough to sleep through the night. Admittedly, an attentive approach requires more parental energy than modern reincarnations of the kibbutz system, but it also promises a more psychologically healthy child.

1 A kibbutz is an Israeli communal farm. The plural form is kibbutzim. Most of Israel’s kibbutzim were organized by socialist emigrants from Europe.

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