“Parenting is the scariest job I have ever had,” I remember a father telling me years ago as he stood proudly watching his child participate in the “Moving on” ceremony at his early childhood center. “With little or no preparation at all, you are thrown head first into the role of mentor, guide, teacher, doctor and expert on how everything in the world works. My kid expects me to answer questions on theology and where the world came from, and just about everything else from “Why is the sky blue?” to “Daddy, where exactly does the water go when I flush the toilet?”
Consequently, it’s little wonder that parents who take their responsibilities seriously, have moments of doubt and anxiety. After all, we live in a world where our children are bombarded on all sides by values that compete for their attention. I often think that to be a parent today is perhaps the supreme act of faith. It takes faith in the future simply to bring a child into the world in the first place. Then it takes faith in yourself and your ability to pass on values that really matter in the face of the constant babble of television, movies, the internet and media of all kinds. And it takes faith that ultimately in spite of the myriad social forces that tug and pull at our children’s loyalty, it will be your own moral example that will have the greatest impact in the end. Although I don’t think there is only one “right” answer to most parenting questions, still parents are constantly asking me for a simple place to begin their own personal search for the most important values they can teach their children. So here is that place to start. It will provide not the answer but one answer to how to begin your own process of discovering what for you are the “ten most important things to teach your child.”
Of course if you got ten parenting “experts” in a room at the same time, you would undoubtedly get ten different lists of what these “most important” lessons ought to be. That is because in many ways each of has our own unique priorities when it comes to our ethics and values. Yet in spite of our differences, there is always more that unites us than there is that divides us. Moreover, the fundamental notion upon which this entire book is based, is that regardless of religion or race, of language or culture, there are indeed transcendent values that all of human society needs in order to both survive and thrive in this new millennium of ours.
This book will present my own list of the values I believe are most important to pass on to the next generation. It is a list that transcends any particular religious tradition and speaks to the very core of what our children must understand if they are to truly make a difference in the world which they are about to inherit from us.
The first crucial step in knowing what to teach your child, is to identify your own ethical parenting goals. Unfortunately it is my experience that most parents spend more time planning a two-week vacation then how they are going to raise their children. The first challenge then is simply to ask the question, “What kind of person do I want my child to be when he/she grows up? If I imagine that my child is grown and I have been wildly successful in raising a child who embraces my own ethics and values, what would that look like? How would he/she act? What qualities would they have? Indeed, what are the most important values I want to pass on to my child?” In the process of identifying those values, you will have created your own private road map to guide you down the path to teaching your child the most important values in your life.
In the course of this book, I will share my personal “top ten” list of values that I believe are most important to prepare my child for the 21st century, the reasons why these are so important to our society and a series of concrete suggestions as to how you might teach them same values to your children.
As I listened to his lament, I realized it’s little wonder that so many parents experience emotions ranging from permanent low-grade anxiety to out and out panic considering how many feel ill equipped to identify and teach their children the key values that give life meaning. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when shortly after that a mom came into my study and asked what I thought were the most important things that she ought to be teaching her child. This book is the result of my answer to that mother. It reflect many years of my own study of child development and parenting, of leading workshops with parents across North America, of listening to their hopes and dreams for their children and of distilling my own thinking about the most important lessons in life that I want my own child to learn.
It is my goal that through the pages of this book you will find the inspiration to create your own personal “top ten” list of values that you will pass on to your children. It is in this spirit that I offer you my list of “The ten most important things to teach your child.” These are the key values and ideas that I want to pass on to my daughter, Gable as she becomes an adult. If, as a result of reading my list you develop your own, I would love for you to share it with me as well. In the pages ahead you will learn
First, I believe that the ultimate challenge of raising ethical children is to teach them a sense of personal responsibility for the quality of life on our planet, the wellbeing of society and ultimately the fate of humanity itself. I want my daughter to experience her life as fundamentally connected to the lives of all people – beginning with her family, extending to friends and peers at school and ultimately to people everywhere simply because she shares with them a common humanity.
Therefore, number one on my list is to instill within my daughter an absolute certainty that what she says, what she does and who she is really matters. It is to give concrete expression to the traditional Jewish idea that every human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in the “image of God.” If all parents were to take this spiritual idea seriously and communicate it passionately to their children, this alone would transform our society. Imagine a generation of kids growing up convinced that their job in life is to be co-partners with God in bringing more holiness, more joy, and more blessings into the world. That’s what it means to know that your words and your actions and your very presence in the world can truly matter.
Second, I want to teach my child that the most important word in the English language is attitude. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” The power of attitude is one of the greatest powers on earth. It is the ability to choose the quality of your life regardless of its circumstances. When Jesse, a world-class teenage surfer in my congregation had a tragic accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down his life could have been over. Instead, only a few years later he has started several businesses, is going to college to become a motivational speaker, sky-dives, jet-skies, is back on a surf board, has created a relationship with Christopher Reeves and is raising money for spinal cord research, had several TV specials dedicated to his remarkable, indomitable spirit and serves as an inspiration to every single person he meets. That is the power of attitude. I want my child to know that this is what the Torah means in Deuteronomy when it says, “See I put before you good and evil, life and death the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” Every day is an opportunity to choose life and know that the quality of our lives is a direct result of the quality of our choices and the attitude we bring to every experience.
Third, I want my daughter to know that her most precious possession is her integrity. Integrity is the quality that inspires people to trust you. To know that your “yes” is yes and your “no” is no. It is the fundamental value that underlies every transaction between human beings whether it’s a handshake or a signed contract. It is the quality that inspires others to put their trust in you, whether it is to baby-sit their children, sell their product or run their company.
Behavior that reflects integrity is found in the simple gestures, casual remarks, and almost unconscious acts of kindness or concern that reflect a fundamental ethical attitude toward family members, friends and even strangers. The most important way you teach integrity to your children is simply by keeping your word. Period. When you tell your child you will be home at a certain time, be there. And when you make a commitment to do something with them, do it.
Fourth is that faith can see you through the darkest hour. I want my daughter to grow up with faith in the world, faith in the power of the godliness that pervades our universe, faith that life has meaning and that she has the opportunity, the ability and the challenge to find that meaning for herself. When life is difficult and we experience pain, frustration or loss, I want my daughter to have the wellsprings of faith to fall back on as our people have for thousands of years. Your job as a parent is to provide your children with enough emotional security as they grow, so that they experience a fundamental faith in God as that transcendent power that animates life and works through human beings to bring goodness, joy and love into the world.
My fifth value is found in the Talmud, where it says, “The highest wisdom is kindness. It is the quality the rabbis call g’milut hasadim, “acts of loving kindness.” I want my daughter to treat people with simple kindness, not as a “random act,” but with a sense of mitzvah, of religious obligation. I want her to know that deep down inside each human being are the same longings, the same dreams, the same needs for purpose and meaning in life, and that treating others with kindness is perhaps the single most powerful way to validate the common humanity of all. As a parent, each time you demonstrate kindness to strangers, the people who serve you or work for you, or family and friends you are teaching kindness to your own child in the most profound way possible.
Sixth, there is no challenge so great that it can withstand relentless persistence. When you study the literature of success in virtually any field, the single most consistent quality that all successful people share is the quality of persistence. It is more important than talent, money, resources, intelligence or any single other quality. I want my daughter to know that most of the time the difference between success and failure is the difference between being persistent and quitting. We waited four hundred years to go free from the slavery of Egypt, and then forty more years to get to the Promised Land. If we hadn’t had the persistence to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we finally crossed the Jordan, we might still be wandering somewhere in the Sinai and all that the Jewish people have given the world might never have happened.
Seventh, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is feeling the fear and acting anyway. All of us have moments of doubt, moments of fear, moments when we don’t know if we can do something or be successful. If we let our fears overcome us and we wait until there is absolutely no fear before we act, we would never act at all. I want my daughter to know that everyone experiences fear. The 23rd Psalm is so moving because we all walk through the same shadowed valleys. Courage is found in the ability to feel the fear, and walk into the valley anyway. It is found in the famous Midrash that when our ancestors stood at the shore of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was bearing down on them from behind, every one of them was stricken with terror.
According to the Midrash, no matter what Moses did the sea wouldn’t part until one man named Nachshon even with his fear was willing to step into the sea. With that step the sea parted and the children of Israel went free. I want my daughter to see herself as Nachshon – willing to take the first step in spite of her fears, with faith that by acting one step at a time her fears will be conquered and success in life achieved.
Lesson number eight is that the most powerful force in the world is love. When the Torah teaches, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it means first love yourself, and then you will be able to love your neighbor. The Talmud even suggests that God has seventy names, and one of them is “love.”
You teach love by giving love, pure and simple. You demonstrate to your child every day that you love her simply because of who she is, not because of anything she has to do. Unconditional love is not the same as uncritical acceptance of all behavior. You love your child because of her inherent worth and value as a divine human being, and you correct destructive and inappropriate behavior as well. By giving your child unconditional love, you teach her the power of love to validate the worth of another, and give her the emotional tools both to give love and experience love for the rest of her life.
Ninth, I taught my daughter when in doubt to ask herself, “If everyone acted as I am about to do, what kind of world will I have created?” By asking this question as a self-challenge, it reminds her that what she does matters, that how she acts has an impact on the quality of our society, that everything she does becomes a role model for others and that she has the choice to act in such a way that if everyone emulates her the world will have more love, more compassion, more justice, more caring, more kindness, more holiness than before.
Finally, number ten is the old Jewish aphorism, “pray as if everything depended upon God, and act as if everything depended upon you.” I want her to engage in prayer and ritual on a regular basis and establish habits that will nourish her soul throughout her life. And I want her to recognize that the way God acts in the world is through human beings. I want her to say, “These are God’s hands, these are God’s eyes, this is God’s mouth.” To know when she sees a homeless family on the street it is not enough to pray, “Dear God please help this family,” because the way God helps that family is by human beings acting so that they are helped. When we build homeless shelters, that is how God helps the homeless. When we give food to Sova, that is how God feeds the hungry. When we donate clothing to Chrysalis or Ocean Park Community Center, that is how God clothes the naked.
So as you prepare your children to go back to school this year, you might write down this list of the ten most important things to teach your child and put them on your refrigerator so that you and your children see them every day. It is a simple yet powerful way for both of you to remember that everyday is a gift filled with opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.