Segal: Time to unwind or unravel |

Segal: Time to unwind or unravel

Last week I had the opportunity to gather with a group of moms in my congregation to talk parenting. The event was billed as a “one-book book club” discussion of family therapist Wendy Mogel’s 2001 parenting guide, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.” Within the safe space created by the group, the conversation ranged from topics in the book to personal parenting struggles.

One widely felt issue was the reality of over-programming: Our kids are too busy with too many activities. Scurrying from sports practices to music lessons and climbing mountains of homework, they rarely find time to daydream, dawdle, play and rest. Downtime is essential to a healthy childhood, and yet we make it an afterthought.

Our negligence about resting is the impetus behind the Jewish tradition’s repeated command to stop working. In the Ten Commandments, and again in this week’s Torah portion, God decrees, “For six days you shall do work, and on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest. … You shall do no work” (Leviticus 23:3). Even God built in a day of rest within the seven days of creation, not as an afterthought but as part of the plan.

Once it becomes normative in the surrounding culture to be working or plugged in all the time, it takes more effort to stop. It is countercultural now, the moms pointed out to me, to let your child have an afternoon of free time each week or not do a sport every season. It’s FOMO (Web lingo for “fear of missing out”) taken to a neurotic, child-stressing extreme.

For some parents, the idea of planning downtime may be unappealing. They make a case for spontaneity — like those who say they’re spiritual and not religious and therefore eschew regular ritual participation. And many sacred family moments do happen spontaneously and can’t always be conjured on demand. But, as Mogel writes, “The idea of guarding the Sabbath” — of being disciplined about downtime — “teaches us to increase the odds that we’ll find ourselves in these moments, that they will be prolonged rather than fleeting, and that we don’t have to leave them entirely to chance.”

Being more intentional about when and where we work and rest can also help us recalibrate the relationship between our work life and home life. Our children hold no monopoly on being spread too thin, and we hurt them by modeling that imbalance. What we value in the workplace — efficiency, order, drive, focus — should not necessarily dictate how home operates. Mogel shares her response to a successful working mother having trouble at home: “If you’re ambitious at home in the same way you’re ambitious at work, you won’t succeed. Your ‘product’ at work is a perfectly engineered, functional, beautiful building. The product you’re after at home is to create an environment where four tired human beings can not only get the homework done and the teeth brushed but also unwind and, through sharing food and conversation, restore their connection to one another.” Parents whose work is an escape from the stress and chaos of home need to hit the reset button.

If we’re driving ourselves crazy and stretched too thin, why do we keep over-programming our families? Why are we so plugged in all the time, so persistently attached to our smartphones with their incessant pinging interruptions? According to psychologists, there may be a subconscious reason we fill every waking moment with the buzz of activity. British researcher D.W. Winnicott called it our “manic defense against despair.” In other words, we can’t tolerate a moment of repose because we’re afraid of facing reality. “We’re not afraid of losing time but of having time to reflect,” Mogel explains.

The comedian Louis C.K., appearing on “Conan” last fall, explained why his kids aren’t allowed to have smartphones: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away — the ability to just sit there. … That’s being a person, right?” We are afraid of feeling sad, even for a second, so we pre-empt despair with distraction. Louis continued, “You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied with your (smartphone) product, and then you die.” We are crippling our ability — and our children’s — to experience and cope with the full range of human emotion.

It’s sad but not surprising to see these negative cultural trends creeping into our valley. Didn’t you move here for a slower pace of life and to escape the high-pressure culture of superficial achievement? A healthier, more restful and balanced life is within our reach, but we have to work for it. As my toddler likes to say, “Red light! Stop!” It’s good advice.

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.

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