About eight years ago, I was out walking when our son Shlomie, then 16 years old, called me on my cell phone. He asked me if I heard the news. “What news?” I asked.
“Tatty,” he blurted out, “[New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani committed adultery!” “And” I said/asked, not knowing what he wanted from me or how he wanted me to respond. “How could he do this, Ta? I know [President Bill] Clinton did things like this, but Giuliani? He seems like such an honest, decent man,” Shlomie said, with confusion and hurt in his voice.
After a few moments of silence I told him that this is really not fit for a phone conversation, so I invited him to discuss this with me in person upon his arrival from yeshiva later that evening.
That unforgettable “Kodak moment” came to mind as the tawdry details of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s stunning downfall recently unfolded throughout the media. More than a few people contacted me, asking how they should respond to their teenager’s questions/ comments about this matter. Thus, the writing of this column.
Now back to Shlomie: Home from yeshiva, we went for a walk at which time I allowed him to express his disappointment with Giuliani and his bewilderment at how people do these kinds of things. When he wound down, I told him that everything that happens in our lives contains lessons to be learned – and this was no exception.
I told him that my take was that human frailty is such that the only way to prevent one from losing his or her moral compass in a moment of weakness was by establishing boundaries. I then gave him several concrete examples of boundaries that I set in my personal life. I asked him, “Shlomie, think back over the years growing up in our home. Did you ever see an unaccompanied woman come to our home to meet with me (and seek my advice) after dark or when there weren’t lots of people walking around our home?” and “Why do you think that the door to my study is almost completely made of glass?”
I explained to him that I decided long ago to set these boundaries – and others – in order to lessen the likelihood of being placed in a precarious position. (It was quite interesting that despite growing up in our home, Shlomie was unaware of the aforementioned two ‘boundaries’ I had set in my life, since we had never discussed them previously.) We talked about the dictum of our chazal (sages) of “ain apitropis l’arayos,” loosely translated to mean that no one can assume that he/she is immune to temptation. We also spoke about our chazal, in their wisdom, having established boundaries for us such as yichud (the prohibition against secluding oneself with a non-family member of the opposite gender) – in order to help us live within the Torah’s mandates.
Further, I emphasized the deep commitment and love that his mother and I share with each other and with our children, and how disruptive dishonesty can be to relationships. We talked about how trust is built and expanded over a period of time with loved ones, and how important it is to always be truthful with the people we care about. (Here are two quotes I find meaningful: “The first lie is always the hardest” and “There is no such thing as a single lie.” The latter means that when one is not truthful, he/she will inevitably need to lie many more times to “cover” for the original one.”)
I advise parents to not get flustered if and when your child raises this topic. Take it as a supreme compliment that he/she is comfortable discussing these matters with you. Keep in mind that you cannot guide your children if they don’t seek your advice.
Don’t make sweeping generalizations like “Frum people don’t do these things” or “Gentiles or non-frum people do.” That might carry the day now but, sadly, no community is without its bad apples. Your message to your child will be demolished and your credibility diminished when he/she discovers that we are not completely immune to poor and immoral behavior, and that there are deeply moral people outside our community.
Talk about our community’s family values, commitment to marriage and low divorce rate, and the Torah’s eternal lessons to help us maintain our spiritual and moral compass in the most trying of circumstances.
Talk about trust. It is an invaluable lesson for your teen to learn – now in his or her relationship with you and later in life when establishing his or her own family.
Do listen, for the real discussions take place when you stop lecturing and start listening. Create an environment where your child is comfortable asking you anything.
Always keep in mind that a repressed question is an unaddressed – and unresolved – one.
And Good luck!
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, and the founder and director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S.
To purchase Rabbi Horowitz’s Dvar Torah Sefer, “Growing With the Parsha” or his popular parenting tapes and CD’s – including his 2-CD set on “Raising your Adolescent Children” – please visit www.rabbihorowitz.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 845-352-7100 x 133.