Kids today… that’s not the way we behaved when we were younger!! That is the mantra I hear repeated as parents bemoan the spoiled nature and lack of responsibility of today’s children. The problem is – it is not a fair comparison. Children have minds of their own and they act upon their own standards and perceptions of their world, even though we cannot always understand or relate. My mother often repeated a story about my sister as a six-year-old child. Moments after telling my sister that she could not cross the street alone, my mother found her riding her bicycle on the other side of the street. When she was confronted, my sister confidently replied, “I did not cross alone, I had my bike with me.” In her six-year-old sense of reality, she believed she was acting within the rules.
Hillel teaches us in Pirkei Avos (2:5) “Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place.” We are instructed to give others the benefit of the doubt with regard to their behavior. Even if their behavior seems wrong, since we are not in their shoes, we do not know how we would react under similar circumstances. The Vilna Gaon expands this to explain that we can never actually be in someone else’s shoes. A person is a cumulative creation of his emotional and psychological makeup, family background, and life experiences. No two people have the same combination of life experiences and physical and emotional sensitivities. Consequently, it is impossible to truly be in someone else’s shoes. The Vilna Gaon is teaching us that we can never judge others since we can never fully understand who they are and what caused them to act in a particular way.
I believe that a large component of our chinuch challenges today is the fast-paced changes that have taken place in technology and society over the past few decades. Parents primarily learn parenting skills by accessing their own upbringing. It is easier to parent when we can use the skills that we learned as we watched our parents raise us. The rapid changes in our society have not been accompanied with instruction booklets to explain how to best raise a child in this distractible, techno-savvy world.
Many parents think that the same rules apply and that they could have the same expectations for their children as their parents had for them. They must be attuned to the words of Hillel, however, and realize that we cannot judge our children, because we don’t necessarily understand them – and we have definitely never walked in their shoes. Yes, we were once children, but, hopefully, we are not children today, and therefore, can barely access our childhood feelings and experiences. In addition, our challenges were worlds apart from the challenges our children face today – and that makes it impossible for us to judge them, or raise them based on old standards. We must open–or create–the 2013 manual to relate to our children in a way that will help them feel understood and appreciated – so that they will understand and appreciate us. The Torah principles and ethics have not changed, they are eternal, but the means of teaching them must change if we are to be effective in reaching our children.
When I was a child, a computer occupied an entire room and cards were used to input information. Today, the technology on a child’s watch is more powerful than this 1970s mainframe. When we were younger, we were told which children we could play with. Today, any maniac can communicate with our children via the computer or their smartphones. When we were younger, it was easier to bridge Torah study with some exposure to secular culture, and it was more acceptable to memorize Babe Ruth’s home run record while growing into greatness in Torah. I firmly believe that it is not so simple to combine the two pursuits in the same way in today’s world. When the sports heroes are so far from our Torah values and the path to decadence is so readily accessible, when so much of the secular world is antithetical to our Torah lifestyle – it is virtually impossible to have our cake and eat it too.
Where can such real life situations meld with the kedushah of a Torah life? Rashi tells us that kedushah means separation, separation from things that are not holy. That is the theme of Havdalah on Saturday night. When we leave the holiness of Shabbos, a day where we separated ourselves form the world in a unique way, we thank Hashem for separating the Jewish people from the profane, from the mundane week, from the ways of the nations of the world. We pray that we should be able to bring the separation of Shabbos into the week as well. We live in the “real world,” but we recognize that all this progressive world offers us may be enticing, but does not mesh with the fabric of Torah values.
We want our kids to be Jewish and stay within our fold, but we also realize that forcing insularity may backfire and not give them the tools to succeed in the American world of 2013 in which they live. I propose three tools to help bridge the gap.
First, we must be extra patient and loving to our children so that we become trusted resources and guides. We must gain their trust, be their parents, disciplinarians, and loving educators. The tough love and physical discipline of years past is not as effective in the environment in which we are raising our children. It must be replaced with a greater understanding of who our children are and the challenges they are facing. Their shoes will never fit you. They are growing up in a different world than you grew up in, and even if you are technologically savvy, you are not a child growing up in this world (and never will be). Try to understand what is best for your child today, not what was good enough for you yesterday. Learn to understand, rather than impose.
Second, with the recognition that children will eventually be exposed to the world in many ways, whether we like it or not, I believe that every child must learn to be a Torah warrior at a young age. I believe that we should limit early childhood exposure to the secular world as much as possible in order to create a strong, emotional passion for Torah. Torah sells itself, and if young children develop a love for Torah and its teachings, there is a greater chance that will continue. Like any building, the foundation must be strong. Children who have an insular but loving early childhood foundation have a greater chance of withstanding the exposure that invariably occurs in the teen years. The excitement of the siddur party in kindergarten is moving, but it must be followed up during the subsequent years with a passion for Torah ethics and values. Children are not capable of understanding the conflicting ideals of the Torah and the world at large, so we must make sure their foundation in Torah is solid. Chazal tell us that a strong foundation of Torah, chesed, and prayer cannot easily be broken, but we must be sure if its strength before it is put to life’s tests.
Third, when the children are invariably exposed to the world at large, usually in their teen years, we have to turn this exposure into a learning experience. If we automatically say no to everything, then children will find ways to do things on their own. Each child has different interests, talents, and desires and we must find kosher outlets for them – if we want to quench these desires without losing our children. Additionally, we must try to educate our children, who by now have a strong foundation of Torah values, with the proper perspective for viewing the world. During this exploratory journey, they need guidance in showing restraint and retaining their underlying values. Many parents feel that since their teens are not really under their control anyway, they can allow them to make their own decisions. If our children trust us and see us as allies instead of gatekeepers keeping out the enticing, exciting world, then we can still be involved in their lives and decisions at this crucial stage. As active parents, we can help them use their Torah foundations to guide their teen decisions. Teenagers must be made to understand that their parents are also battling comparable challenges and can guide them based on their own life experiences. Ultimately, the process of guiding our children as they navigate the world must be done through the lenses of Torah. The alternative is a teen-led tour whereby they believe that that they must choose between the Torah values of their youth and the compelling secular influences and experiences.
Pesach is a time of commemorating the past and connecting with our children, our links to the future. We speak to the “four sons” in a way that each child can understand. May Hashem give us all Divine assistance in raising children with strong foundations and in giving them homes where they feel comfortable in asking their questions and receiving our answers.
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Frieman is the pulpit Rabbi of Jewish Center Nachlat Zion, the home of Ohr Naava. He is certified as a shochet, sofer, and has given lectures in the United States, Canada, and throughout Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Frieman is currently the American Director of seminaries Darchei Binah, Afikei Torah, and Chochmas Lev in Eretz Yisroel, and teaches in Nefesh High School, Camp Tubby during the summers, and lectures weekly at Ohr Naava. In addition, Rabbi Frieman teaches all tracks in Ateres Naava Seminary. He is a highly anticipated speaker on TorahAnytime.com where he speaks live most Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.
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