November 30, 2000
The Ten Most Important Things to Teach Your Child
"Parenting is the scariest job I have ever had," a father told me last month as he stood proudly watching his child participate in the "Moving On" ceremony of my synagogue's Early Childhood Center. "With little or no preparation at all, you are thrown headfirst 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?"
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 the very next day a mom came into my study and asked what I thought were the most important things that she ought to be teaching her child. So, as we prepare for the start of another school year with yet another opportunity for parents to serve as the primary ethical role models for their children, I offer you the list I shared with her of the 10 most important things to teach your child. These are the most important values that I want to pass on to my daughter.
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 well-being 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 they share a common humanity.
I want 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. 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 sky-dives, jet-skis, is back on a surfboard, is going to college to become a motivational speaker, has started several businesses, has created a relationship with Christopher Reeve and is raising money for spinal cord research, has 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, 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 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 chasadim (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 (religious obligation). I want her to know that deep down, people have 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 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 other single quality. I want my daughter to know that the difference between success and failure is often the difference between being persistent and quitting. We waited 400 years to go free from the slavery of Egypt and then 40 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, Nachshon, was willing to step into the sea, despite his fear. 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 70 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 10 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.
I hope you'll consider writing down this list of the 10 most important things to teach your child and putting it on your refrigerator so that you and your children see it every day. It is a simple yet powerful way for both of you to remember that every day is a gift filled with opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.