I once walked in on my dad mocking parts of my Shabbat observance to my sister and brother. He then, shamefaced as a puppy who knows he’s done wrong, came over to me to ask for forgiveness. I may or may not be exacting my revenge, in print, at this very moment.
It wasn’t the negative interaction that you might have imagined it to be. In fact, I remember feeling a certain relief. My family is generally a model of how observant and non-observant people who love each other can get along. However, don’t think for a moment that I’m blind to what my relatives actually think about my observance (I’m sure they know that I would like them to be more Jewishly committed). It was kind of nice to have it out in the open.
Children actually tell people what’s on their mind, instead of hiding their opinion behind three coats of politeness and some lacquer. They are also impressionable, and I think you’re right that the opinion of the “older, cooler cousins,” is important to the younger ones.
But I’m worried that pious niceties about respectful conversation won’t actually change the dynamic between the kids, but rather drive it further underground.
One possibility is that your sister’s kids are parroting their parents’ opinions. In which case, I’d ask your sister and her partner if they were open, not to a conversation about the kids’ behavior, but to a frank conversation (or five) between you parents concerning Judaism. Don’t submit your children to a war of opinion by proxy.
The other possibility is that the cousins are calling Shabbat boring, well, because they think it’s boring. But boredom is subjective, the result of having to do something which you don’t think is worthwhile. So the real question is, do your kids think Shabbat is boring? And if so, what are you going to do about it?
To be Shabbat observant is to know that, when you mention that you won’t be using your cell phone today, some people will look at you like they’re wondering whether they should call security. My way of dealing with that look has been to create a Shabbat experience that means so much to me that I wouldn’t give it up even if someone paid me (surprisingly, they try). Give your kids a Shabbat they love. Help them tell their cousins why they love it.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.