“When should I start making my kid come to shul?” This is a question that comes up a lot, usually between the ages of seven and ten. This will shed some light on how to potentially come to an answer, and how to make it happen successfully when it is time to bring your son along with you.
Before discussing anything else, consider: Why do you want your son to come to shul? Speaking with different fathers will yield a variety of answers, ranging from, “Well, he’s old enough and he should be going,” to “I want him to start getting used to it.” Each of these answers deserve discussion by themselves, and we’ll try to give some attention to a few.
“Well, he’s old enough, and he should be going.” Any answer that includes the word ‘should’ needs a little extra introspection. What makes you think this is what your son ‘should’ be doing? Is this the age you were when your father started bringing you? Are other boys his age going? Ask yourself the proper questions, and you may discover that the answer of “He should be going” is a smoke screen for another, potentially deeper answer. This is not to say that the answer isn’t valid, but you won’t know that until you get past the smoke screen.
“I’d like him to learn what it’s like to be in shul for davening.” If this is your reason, you may want to consider whether he’s old enough to daven for an extended period of time, and what he might be doing in shul if he’s not. Unless your shul has youth groups, he may find himself roaming the halls/grounds unsupervised or inside disturbing the davening. Something to consider is bringing him to a shorter tefilla. He may have patience for that, and won’t run the risk of having to keep himself occupied. This also keeps him away from the impression that “davening is long and shul is boring”.
“All the other boys his age come to shul.” The problem with this answer is that it’s missing a ‘therefore’. Others do it, and then we need to see a logical jump to your son specifically. Yes, there is what to be said about the idea of doing what others are doing, but this is not about the other boys. It’s about your son, and what’s best for him in his development.
“He should meet friends from the neighborhood.” This is actually a very valid reason. Although it may not be thought of as such, shul is one of the few officially sanctioned social outlets for the frum man. Expanding your son’s social circles to include people in his neighborhood in a communal environment sets the stage for a future of social interactions in the same setting.
“He just bothers everyone at home.” This is, not surprisingly, very common, especially with older boys. It may be a reason to start bringing him along with you on Shabbos morning, even if he himself isn’t ready to sit and daven. Make sure you bring things to keep him occupied. If he ends up hanging out with other boys in the same boat, check in on him periodically. This way, he knows you’re watching, and you’ll feel more secure in knowing what he’s up to and who he’s with. If he’s not ready for that, you may be able to help things out by changing the dynamic at home. Easier said than done, and certainly not for this discussion.
Your son may be able to sit through davening, or come to shul nicely, daven some, and not disturb for the rest. You may have decided it’s a good idea to bring him. The one catch is that he’s not interested. In situations like these, a little incentivization works very well. When coming up with an incentive, it’s important to choose something together that isn’t huge, is finite, and will help your son acclimate to the point where he doesn’t need the incentive to continue the behavior. One father I worked with arranged for his son to earn a piece of a shtender (side panels, top panel, molding, etc) for each time he came to shul. After about ten times, the boy had earned a shtender and was happy to come to shul. No further incentivization was needed.
Part of our role as fathers is to help our sons develop a healthy relationship with their sense of ruchnius, with the parts of our day that help us to connect to Hashem. It’s important to do it carefully, and in a way which makes them feel enthused and ambitious, not resentful and ambivalent. If we truly consider what’s best for them and what their needs are, we will, b’ezras Hashem, be successful.