Priming for a Sweet New Year
In his article for September’s Isaian, Josh wonders whether research in the field of neuropsychology can help answer some enduring questions about religious school.
In 1996, three psychologists at NYU held conversations with test subjects. Though the subjects didn’t know it, the researchers intentionally used certain words often associated with the elderly.
When the test subjects left the room, a very strange thing happened. Those who’d had conversations featuring words like Florida, wrinkle, and forgetful walked out of the room at a significantly slower pace than test subjects who hadn’t just heard those words.
This phenomenon (which I heard about from my brother-in-law, a graduate student in psychology) is called “priming.” The idea is that our brains (probably as a result of some evolved survival mechanism) make educated guesses thousands of times a day, assuming where the next stair will be, or that something is hot or cold based on appearance. Though this is very helpful, sometimes these neurological “shortcuts” cause us to assume attitudes, emotions, and behaviors that we probably wouldn’t make if our conscious mind had the chance to think it over. In my brief reading on the subject, I’ve learned that this science is used by attorneys seeking to influence jurors’ subconscious attitudes and by tutors helping students to remember a concept by “priming” some associative trigger in their minds.
All this got me thinking about the meeting that Jewish educators have been having for decades. It’s the one where a parent sits down in my office (feel free to substitute the director’s office at any synagogue in America) and says, “My child hates Hebrew school. It’s a battle to get him/her to come. What can I do?”
To answer, I let parents in on a secret: Kids don’t hate Hebrew school. They love it. I have thousands of photos taken just this past school year, and almost all of them are un-posed shots of students smiling and having a great time. (You’re welcome to come watch the slideshow any time.) Of course, despite the fact that they have a good time here, most kids would rather watch TV, play ball, read magazines, or go to the movies. Even though they don’t hate religious school as much as they want you to think, there’s a bunch of stuff they’d rather do.
“And that’s why they say they hate coming,” I tell the parent sitting in my office. “We’re working hard to contradict the preconception that school is boring, and there’s lots of cool stuff happening in our school. Once they get in the door, they smile soon enough. See the pictures?”
That answer never works. Usually, the mom or dad in my office says, “Fine. But what do I tell them when they’re refusing to go, especially when I can’t blame them? I hated Hebrew school too when I was their age!”
To be honest, I’ve never had a great response. Rather, I’ve taken these meetings as a chance to remind myself how hard we have to work and how good our program has to be in order to change people’s minds.
I have a new answer, thanks to those NYU shrinks. Want to know what you can do to help your kids appreciate Hebrew school? Stop priming them.
I don’t mean to shirk my own responsibility. If we want religious school to be the opposite of the boring, time-wasting, monotonous experience shared by so many, educators need to try some new ideas. (For starters, we should probably get rid of the word “school,” a not-so-new idea that deserves revisiting in light of this whole “priming” discussion.)
But there’s an easy thing parents can do to make a major difference. Stop saying the following (or the version heard in your house):
“I’m sorry you have to go. I hated it too when I was your age, and it’s just something you have to get through. Just try and make it through your bar/bat mitzvah.”
I appreciate the sincere feeling of empathy intended by the statement. The problem is that every time you say it, you’re helping a young brain to subconsciously form negative associations. They come to see religious school as something to endure, something that will be over soon, and something that can’t help but be boring. Pretty soon, the word “Hebrew school” gets a child frowning, not so unlike the effect the word “Florida” has on people’s walking speed.
The other problem is that the “I hated Hebrew school too” response, though well-meaning, isn’t true. On countless occasions in the past year, I’ve asked parents why they schlep their children here, pay tuition, come to family programs, and all the rest. Not one parent said, “I do it because it’s what we have to endure in order to have the bar mitzvah the grandparents require under threat of disinheritance.”
Rather, they told me about passing on heritage, tradition, values, a moral compass, a sense of belonging, community, shared history, and about commitment to something transcendent.
As Rosh HaShanah approaches, it’s appropriate that I can offer new answer for the new year. Parents, when your children ask you why they go to religious school every week, tell them the truth. Instead of priming them to develop negative feelings toward Jewish education, we should tell them why this matters to us.