Yesterday I met with some parents who are reading Sabbath in the Suburbs. It was a rich conversation. It was also very gratifying for me as a writer, to hear their points of resonance and connection with the words on the page. In the words of Bruno Kirby’s character in When Harry Met Sally, “No one has ever quoted me back to me before.” (Well OK, it happens with sermons sometimes, but still. Heady stuff. Holy ground.)
Although the book has applicability for many kinds of people—check out some of the Amazon reviews to see how non-parents and non-suburbanites (and non-Christians) are responding to it—there’s no getting around the fact that the book follows our family’s particular successes and struggles. And having been through that experience with our three littles, I see the psychological and spiritual benefits of Sabbath-keeping for children. Here are just a few:
1. Children need time to play. Countless studies highlight the benefits of unstructured time for creativity, brain development and emotional health. Children need to rest from their work, whether that work is lacrosse or long division. Sabbath provides a means for doing so.
2. Children have a chance to be in charge. So often, our kids are along for the ride when it comes to the family schedule. As an antidote, we often let our kids take the lead on Sabbath. They can suggest the activities, games and even outings for that day (within reason).
Children can also be our best Sabbath teachers. They get the need for purposeless play. And they are often quite gifted at being attentive to the moment. In the book I describe an experience of going to the zoo and experiencing life at the speed of Margaret, who was five at the time. It was very difficult to let her set the pace—I believe the word I used in the book is “excruciating”—but it was also illuminating. And one of the mothers yesterday talked about spending an hour with her daughter watching a caterpillar wiggle its way across the playground. An hour! Her daughter’s focused delight rubbed off on her.
3. Children learn about their likes, dislikes and temperament. As Gretchen Rubin says, “You can choose what to do; you can’t choose what you like to do.” That’s one of her Secrets of Adulthood, but it’s something children should learn as well. Having a dedicated time each week for Sabbath gives kids some unstructured time in which to find their own rhythms and preferences. Do they like to curl up with a book? Do they need to have kinesthetic? For how long? Yes, kids can learn about their likes and dislikes from sports teams and music lessons, but Sabbath lets them be more self-directed in this exploration.
I write in the book about a family outing downtown during which Caroline was gloomy and griping. At one point we ducked into the botanical gardens, which was the only place nearby that had a bathroom. Caroline was transformed, and still remembers that as the day she realized that being around plants and flowers calms her. That’s quite a bit of insight for a child who was eight at the time.
4. Children learn that their parents have limits. I can’t find the link now, but a psychologist did a survey of kids and asked them, “If you could change one thing about your interactions with your parents, what would it be?” She expected them to wish for more quality time with their parents. In fact, their number one wish is that their parents wouldn’t be so tired all the time. Taking time for rest is vital. My kids know that we do this weekly(-ish) ritual because we grownups need it. We are not superhuman. It’s hard to give your kids a peek into your own vulnerabilities, but I think such glimpses are healthy.
5. Children get an opportunity to enjoy their parents, free of t0-do lists and schedules. Enough said.
6. Sabbath is a spiritual foundation for the rest of their life. You may have certain hopes for your children in terms of their religious convictions in adulthood. Maybe you’ll feel disappointed if they don’t end up in the same faith tradition as you. Or maybe that’s not important to you. In any case, time for rest, renewal and play will serve them well throughout life. Although Sabbath is rooted in specific stories in the Hebrew scriptures, it is a universal impulse. Sabbath cultivates attentiveness, contentment, trust, and joy. What’s not to love?