Book Review: What’s a parent to do?

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Whenever I look at a contemporary parenting book, I find myself sighing and thinking of how much easier life seemed when I was growing up. If we were bored, we were sent outside to play. Organized activities were kept to a minimum and a playdate was when you walked to someone’s house, knocked on the door and asked their mom if they could come out and play. All television shows were suitable for children and home computers, let alone the Internet, existed only as a figment of someone’s imagination. While I hate to sound like an old fogey complaining about how much better the good old days were (especially since I don’t want to go back to them), I still think today’s parents have it tough. At least that was my reaction to reading "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential Scoop on Raising Modern Jewish Kids" by Sharon Duke Estroff, M.A.T. (Broadway Books).

Estroff, an educational consultant and the author of a parenting column, writes from personal experience: She has four school-age children. Although an award-winning professional educator, she still found herself "paralyzed by the inflated expectations of our overachieving, anxiety-filled culture," that is until she decided to stop racing in the "Mommy 500." Estroff realized the great price everyone in the family pays when parenting is "achievement-oriented." Instead of focusing on their children’s accomplishments, parents should concentrate on raising "resilient, empowered, menschlich, happy children."

This is not an easy task, as least according to Estroff. She wrote "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?" "to give [parents] an instruction manual that will help you focus on the big picture while providing clear and specific guidelines to help you achieve it, illuminate the infinite ways that your Jewish heritage can help you make all those little daily decisions that add up to what we call parenting, and serve as a parenting ally throughout the rocky grade-school years." The book covers such topics as choosing the right school, surviving homework, arranging playdates, organizing birthday parties, deciding on extracurricular activities, planning for bar/bat mitzvahs, teaching about money and tzedakah, and dealing with the Internet. Also offered are "Parenting 911" sidebars that discuss sibling squabbles, standardized test scores, making use of time spent in cars and family rituals, among others.

Although sometimes the suggestions can be a touch overwhelming (at least to those of us who grew up when parents didn’t have to visit a variety of kindergartens in order to decide which one was the best for their children), Estroff offers excellent advice, especially when it comes to teaching parents to be realistic about what to expect from their children. For example, she notes that although "each and every child has wonderful things to offer," she cautions against offering empty praise, such as telling a child that she has a talent for drawing, singing or athletics when she doesn’t. In addition to helping "children discover and nurture their true strengths," parents need to help them face "up to their limitations." She also discusses the problem with scheduling too many activities, noting how important it is for children to have "downtime" – time when they can learn to amuse themselves – and quotes experts who "believe that downtime can be as, if not more, constructive than all of our children’s extracurricular activities combined."

Estroff includes a chapter on dealing with the December dilemma (Christmas) and ways to nourish "children’s Jewish souls." This section also gives practical advice concerning schooldays missed for Jewish holidays and information on how to teach grade-school children about the Holocaust. Suggestions about how to make different holidays more meaningful are offered, although no mention is made of Sukkot and Shavuot. The chapter about planning a bar mitzvah can help families emphasize the mitzvah, rather than the party. Jewish ideas are incorporated into other sections of the book, although the general parenting advice is suitable for all parents.

Readers waiting to hear the answer to the title question (should you let your child have a cell phone) may be disappointed, though. There is only one small section in the chapter "Toys, Toys, Toys" that deals with cell phones and which offers suggestions rather than a firm answer. The subtitle of Estroff’s book, "The Essential Scoop on Raising Modern Jewish Children," fits her work far better than the title, which suggests the majority of the book will teach about making consumer decisions.

However, that is a minor quibble. Any parent feeling overwhelmed will find "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?" filled with interesting, easy-to-read advice. Estroff has a sense of humor, noting when she’s made parenting mistakes and discussing the lessons she learned the hard way. Parenting in the 21st century may not be easy, but Estroff helps make the task a little less difficult.