Instilling values in our children in a valueless world

At the outset, I would like to dispel the notion of allowing our children to explore the world and discover their own values by trial and error, by hook or by crook, from their environment, be it their peers, media, social media or societal trends. The self exploratory model is the antithesis of the traditional Jewish model of instilling values in our children via our home and as part of our sacred and integral parenting responsibility. It is also a counterintuitive and ineffective method of imparting quality values to our children.

I do believe that the vast majority of parents in our community seek to instil good values in their children, and, as parents, we think and talk about it quite a bit. In line with modern psychology, and Jewish wisdom, children are not born with a clear sense of right and wrong, and transmitting quality life values takes a deliberate effort and significant thought.

‘Moral knowledge’ vs ‘Moral action’

We all know that ‘do as I say, and not as I do’ doesn’t work. Even more subtle than that, ‘telling’ our kids and ‘lecturing’ them in good values isn’t an effective manner of ensuring they are instilled with the self-same values.

Famed child psychiatrist, author of more than 80 books and 1,300 articles, a professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities and eventually of Social Ethics at Harvard University, Dr Robert Coles, tells an amazing story. Sitting in his study at Harvard, in walks one of the students in his Social Ethics course to say farewell. She informed him that she wasn’t just dropping the course, but that she would be leaving the University. Robert was surprised, as this particular student was sent to Harvard by a collective financial effort of her small town, who elected to send the most promising of their young people to be educated in the Ivy League University. But what stunned him even more was the cause of her departure.

She explained that her community funded her tuition, however, she didn’t have the resources to pay for her room, board, textbooks, etc. To afford these necessities, she would work evening and weekends offering her services as a cleaner at some of the students’ accommodation. Each week, she would enter a particular apartment, and one of the boys in that apartment, whose family has a long-standing affiliation with the University, and their name emblazoned in big letters on one of the University buildings, took it upon himself to taunt and belittle her. He called her derogatory names and made her life extremely unpleasant while she cleaned his and his friend’s apartment. She explained to Dr Coles that this same young man received the very top mark in his Social Ethics and Values course, and she said, ‘I do not want to be a part of an institution that recognises and awards such behaviours,’ thus she was going home to study in her local College.

This episode struck a chord for Coles and emphasised the gap between ‘Moral knowledge’ as was being taught in his course, and ‘Moral action’ – i.e. applying that knowledge in everyday life.

There are many values that we wish to instil in our children, however, I would like to dwell upon six values.

Value # 1 – Gratefulness

Fundamental to being Jewish, is being a person who expresses ‘hoda’ah’ and appreciation. In fact, one of the original names for a Jewish person is ‘Yehudi’. The name Yehudi comes from the fourth of the twelve sons/tribes of Yacov. Born to his mother Laya, Yehuda, being the fourth-born meant that his mother, one of four wives, now bore more than her fair share of the destined 12 sons/tribes, and for that she wished to express her appreciation and gratefulness, thus she named him Yehuda – Ha’paam Odeh Et Hashem – ‘this time I will thank Hashem’.

Fundamental to all future progeny of the Jewish nation is this attribute of appreciation.

A powerful and simple manner of instilling gratefulness into our children is showing appreciation ourselves. Thanking our spouse regularly and sincerely in front of our children for the small, as well as the big, things they do in our lives. Thanking those who provide goods and services, our children’s educators, and others in our lives. Ensuring we take nothing for granted. Our children will often catch that trend and express their own appreciation to us and when they do so, don’t say, ‘don’t mention it, it’s my pleasure’, but rather praise them for expressing their appreciation.

Grateful children grow up to be grateful adults, who lead happier and more fulfilled lives, and are far more pleasant to be around.

Value # 2 – The Power of Chesed

I would like to share two short stories that illustrate the impact of chesed. A large prominent Jewish summer camp that ran for the full two-plus months of the North American summer explored an innovative idea. The Camp directors decided to invite several bunks of significantly disabled children (i.e. those with Down syndrome, mid to low functional autism etc.) to be part of their camp that summer. They felt it was a good thing to provide the children with significant disabilities with the opportunity to experience their wonderful camp. As this was a high-demand experiment that required significant extra professional staff and resourcing, they only invited them for the first session, i.e. the first month of the American summer.

They were surprised to see that during the second month, after the children with disabilities had already gone home, the fundamental nature and culture of the camp had changed. Whereas previously the children were slightly entitled, a bit selfish, and often cliquey and unkind, they found that now there was a tangible pervasive kindness, greater inclusivity, and tremendous breakdown of social cliques. Being kind, practising chesed and inclusion with the neurodivergent children, had fundamentally changed the culture amongst the rest of the camp.

A second story. A number of years ago, in a different school setting, the educators and I came across a 16-year-old boy from a wonderful family who was experiencing disengagement from school and his family’s traditional Orthodox values. He got involved with peers who engaged with illicit substances and hung out on the streets getting up to mischief. He was sinking deeper and deeper into social dysfunction and going down a slippery slope. His parents, the professional therapists involved, and his educators were at a loss.

At the same time, we had a Primary School boy with significant behavioural and emotional challenges. He had explosive episodes during which his teachers couldn’t manage, and his peers were increasingly becoming afraid of being near him. One of the educators suggested that this teenager should work with this neurodivergent Primary School child. I asked him to take on the responsibility part-time. He was quite chuffed. Within a matter of weeks, he was spending more and more time in the Primary School, he got through to this child in a manner that no one else had been able to, and the explosive episodes stopped. His teachers were able to teach him and the rest of the class; this High School boy received accolade and fulfilment. We ended up modifying the rest of his High School experience with TAFE and alternative courses for him to finish High School, and he expressed a desire to enter into the field of helping and education. He stopped hanging out with the bad influencers on the street, he left behind his drug habits and, today, he leads a constructive and upstanding life.

Chesed (giving of oneself to others) definitely benefits the recipient of the chesed, however, it benefits the giver, the benefactor, even more so. As parents, we cannot underestimate the value of giving of ourselves. Our children notice and are inspired, whether it’s on PSG, P&F or any chesed opportunity. Children seeking and embracing opportunities to give of themselves will have long-term beneficial impacts on their character and wellbeing.

Value # 3 – Resolving differences, dealing with anger/disappointment

Living with humans, functioning in a complex world or community, automatically results in different viewpoints, disappointments and interpersonal challenges. How we deal with those challenges is the tell-tale of how fulfilling our relationships will be throughout our lives.

A part of marriage, or at least most healthy, functioning marriages, is disagreement. Modelling for our children how we navigate those disagreements is a vital and significant life skill and a gift we can give them. Speaking about other people’s political views, or community leaders such as the Heads of an organisation, a local Rabbi, a teacher or Principal with whom we differ, and how we discuss that difference, is of vital importance in instilling values in children.

It is healthy, in an age-appropriate manner, to engage our kids in discussions about our viewpoints, in opposition to the viewpoints of others. However, despite disagreeing with the other, showing that we treat them with dignity and respect, not belittling or attacking the individual but rather disagreeing with their ideas and perhaps their behaviours, is a very powerful life lesson for our child. We empower them with how to have a viewpoint, to stand up for their values, and to respectfully disagree, enabling them to achieve a better outcome.

There is the famed story, I am unsure if it ever really took place, but it is a fabulous story, of a young family with young children and their elderly grandfather who moved into their home. As time progressed, and the grandfather aged, he got the ‘shakes’ and, as a result, would often accidentally drop and break dishes at the dining room table. The young parents sourced crude wooden unbreakable dishes for the grandfather to use.

One day, after calling his young son, the father went up to see what he was doing in his bedroom, he found him hacking away at a block of wood with a kitchen knife. Upon inquiry as to what he was doing, his son said, ‘Why Father, I am carving some wooden dishes for when you are old and shaky, so you don’t break my dishes’. Very taken aback, the father realised what he had been doing to his very own father and immediately reinstated the regular dishes for his use rather than denigrating him with the wooden utensils.

Dealing with disappointment with dignity is a lifelong skill.

Value # 4 – ‘Emett – Truth’

There is an unusual Midrash about the creation of humans (a Midrash is the sage’s artistic and creative representation of Jewish values and stories, often with slightly exaggerated/more vivid colour and detail, in order to make a point, or instil a value in the reader). When seeking to create humans, the attributes of Chesed (kindness) and Tzedek (righteousness) were extremely supportive of their creation. On the contrary, Emett (truth) and Shalom (peace) were opposed to creating humans. The Midrash describes how, metaphorically, Hashem cast Emett to the ground and Emett shattered and He promptly created humans.

Truth is an absolute. It is very difficult to have absolute truth where you have humans, thus the opposition to their creation. It is also very difficult to have absolute peace where you have humans, as humans experience differences and discrepancies between themselves. If you take the time to look at student surveys from High Schools and Universities across the globe, you would be shocked as to the high percentage of students that admit to lying and cheating on assignments and assessments. In fact, over the years, and in discussion with a number of psychologists and educators, I have concluded that most children, when backed into a corner, or put under undue pressure to perform, will resort to bending the truth (lying). Often, they justify their lies and convince themselves of an ‘alternative truth’. It is difficult for parents to accept that their children may not be 100% truthful, however, most humans, in line with the Midrash, struggle with absolute truth. It is a difficult and evasive value.

A highly effective manner of instilling truthfulness in our children is to sit them down, preferably in their Primary Years (however, it is never too late), or sometimes in the first part of their High School years, and emphasise how much we value hard work, and it is far more important to us that they act with integrity and truthfulness, than perform well on their assessments and in their HSC.

When a child gets caught cheating or plagiarising, the parents need to accept what their child did; the next day, capitalise on the tremendous life learning opportunity of sitting them down in a non-emotive manner and reinforcing the values of integrity and truthfulness. And finally, as parents, modelling truthfulness in our lives, all around our children, even if it hurts, is a powerful method of instilling the attribute of truth in our children.

Value # 5 – Values and Attitudes related to Money

In the last three decades or so in the Western world, our wealth, even bearing in mind inflation, has more than doubled. However, our happiness has not. Divorce rates have doubled, youth suicide has tripled and there has been an exponential increase in depression and anxiety disorders. Having more does not correlate with being more satisfied and being happier.

In a survey studying the ambitions of more than 10,000 students entering Universities in North America, 30+ years ago, approximately more than 70% aimed predominantly to make a positive impact in the world and to find fulfilment through a meaningful profession. Approximately 35% also emphasised making money and wealth acquisition.

A similar survey was repeated approximately five years ago with a similar number of students. In the recent survey, more than 70% identified making money and acquiring wealth as their dominant ambition with approximately 30% hoping to make a positive impact on the world and find a fulfilling and meaningful profession. The values and perceptions around money and wealth has definitely changed within our society in the last number of years.

I find it interesting to look at the lost and found in different schools. Often, school systems in less affluent communities have sparse lost and found items, with items of little or no value therein. Whereas schools in affluent communities have extensive lost and founds, filled with valuable items often labelled but never claimed.

In reference to providing someone with financial and material support without them being deserving or showing any commensurate effort, the Talmud describes that benefit as ‘Nahama D’Kisufa’ – ‘the Bread of Shame’. The recipient of the undeserving support doesn’t necessarily feel good about receiving it. In fact, it can be a shameful experience where, according to the Talmud, it is difficult for them to ‘look the benefactor in the face’, i.e. it may actually cause the beneficiary to be embarrassed, and almost resentful of the benefactor.

In addition, the Talmud says that a person desires one portion of their own, i.e. due to their own hard work and earnings, as opposed to the nine portions that are given to them for no reason. Many of us experience the challenge of providing our kids with everything or at least too much. We do so for a number of reasons. Sometimes, because we didn’t have everything when we were growing up and we compensate by being overly giving to our children. Other times, we view it as enabling our children to keep up with their peers or it’s about being fair. In some circumstances, psychologists have identified the concept of parental replacement, whereby when one or both parents work long hours and are unable to adequately give of their time to their children, they may instead provide them with compensatory material abundance. Whatever the reason, we need to undertake a few important activities when helping our children develop healthy attitudes and values towards money. One technique is to teach our children the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Often, children find it difficult to differentiate between the two. It is a worthwhile discussion.

Monitor our own talk about money and material pursuits around our children. Do we overly emphasise and discuss luxury or material items, or do we keep them in context? Asking ourselves a series of questions about what we value and what our underlying beliefs and attitudes are towards money, helps us consciously convey values that we would like our children to be imbued with.

Teaching children about savings is an outstanding life skill. Saying no to them for wants or luxuries that are unnecessary helps them to develop self-regulation and self-control, giving them a better chance at happier relationships and a happier life.

A simple old-fashioned technique is giving our children, at the appropriate age, a fixed weekly/monthly allowance within our budget and means (this is essential for adult children as well). Once they have their allowance and we have ensured they set aside some money for savings, and they spend their money wisely, knowing they have to work to a finite budget, rather than having an infinite pool of indefinite funds for whatever they want, helps them think frugally and strategically about money.

Value no # 6 – Being Empathetic & Considerate People

A simple technique to develop empathetic and more selfless children is to assign children, in an age and stage-appropriate manner, regular chores or responsibilities within the home or family. Whether it is walking the dog, clearing the table, hanging the washing, doing up their bed, mowing the lawn, taking out the rubbish etc. it doesn’t actually matter what it is, but rather that it is regular and entails clear expectations and has an obvious purpose or benefit to the family. Children who engage in clearly defined, consistent chores, causing them to think and act for the betterment of the family, learn to be more considerate and empathetic of others.

In conclusion

This is only the beginning of the discussion and it requires much further thought and reflection as we all aspire to bring up our children with a wonderful set of values and to be real menschen.

To summarise the six simple values:

  1. Model gratefulness (modelling gratitude can actually be selfish but that is for another discussion)
  2. Seek opportunities for us and our children to do chesed – kindness
  3. Model effective resolution of differences when dealing with anger and disappointment
  4. Model truth and integrity as a core value
  5. Reflect upon and model effective attitudes towards money and materialism
  6. Chores at home breed empathy

Hatzlacha Raba, may we all continue to glean nachas from our children.

Wishing you all a restful holiday with your children, and we look forward to seeing you back in Term 3.


Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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