August 14, 1997
Make the Time Count
Child rearing, it turns out, is a relativelyshort-term project. The truth is that we don't have them for verylong. Eighteen years, that's all. Eighteen years, from birth untilthey move away to Stanford. If your child is 5, you've got 13 yearsleft. If your child is 8, you've got 10 years. If your child is 11,you've got only seven years -- just a few years to put them to bedwith a story and a song, to make them breakfast, to stick artwork upon the fridge.
It's also a very few years to teach values, toshape character, to instill a way of life. If it takes a lifetime tocreate a masterpiece of art or music, how do we shape the characterof our children in just a few years? We used to hope that they'dlearn by example -- watch us and model their behavior after ours.That's difficult these days. We can't assume that by living a certainset of values, our kids will model their values after our own. Theoutside culture produces too much static interference. The mediaculture is powerful, intrusive and pernicious. For every parentalwarning to think carefully and to act reflectively, there's a Nike adadmonishing, "Just Do It!"
It takes more than modeling to teach valuesbecause the values that we think we are modeling, the values we thinkwe are living, aren't always visible to our kids. When we write acheck to a charity that we deem important, how do our kids know? Whenwe go to a meeting of the community, leaving them at home with thesitter, how are they to know?
To raise kids with strong values, we must be muchmore affirmative in our efforts. We must know our own values. And wemust work -- consciously and creatively -- to make our values visibleto our kids.
Begin with this assignment: What do you want yourchild to take to college? No, not the Toyota or the computer, butwhat values, what commitments, what ethics? Make a list of the 10values you want your child to have. Post the list on yourrefrigerator door. Ask yourself each day how these values have foundtheir way into your child's life.
Qualities of character are communicated byimmersing children in an environment rich with symbols, rituals andstories. Because children need to see and to hear and to touch ourvalues, the Torah teaches: U'k'tavtem al mezuzot beitecha -- "Writethem on the door posts of your house" (Deuteronomy 6:9). Read yourhome. Read the values that are visible in your home. Do you have atzedakah box? Do you have Shabbat candles? Does your home -- thevisible and the tangible environment in which you bring up yourchildren -- bespeak your deepest passions and purposes? Are thererituals in your life, rituals that communicate your ethics? Do youshare stories at bedtime, at holiday times, at special moments? Arethese stories that help kids find their place in a greater story,stories that give kids courage to face life?
We have them for so little time. Make the timecount. The greatest gift we give our kids is a sense of life'spurpose and meaning, the values we uphold, the commitments we fightfor, the passions that make life worthwhile. The Rabbis warned us:"Hazman katzar, vi'hamalachah miruba'at."
The time is short, and the task substantial. Starttoday.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.