February 23, 2006
Parental Values Do Influence Children
It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn't my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.
I admitted to my son that I didn't understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous "N" word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn't see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.
By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.
Having an open dialogue -- about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets -- is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.
The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor -- peer pressure.
We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.
We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend's house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.
As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to -- and can't --control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.
Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.
1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours -- at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.
2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.
3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person's thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate -- essential ingredients for moral behavior.
4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.
5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child's taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.
6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don't attack them personally -- and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.
7. Create "car talks" when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don't always have to take place in the car.
Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.
Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.