Are my children safe? Are they at risk for abuse? Are they vulnerable? Can something like this happen to them too?
We would like to believe that we have educated our children to beware strangers. To be cautious around people that are suspicious. And to certainly never let anyone see or touch their private places.
We may read them books about these topics, discuss these issues at a Shabbat meal and encourage them that they can always tell us anything and we will believe them.
But are we educating and empowering them to really trust themselves? Or are we distracted by these troubling headlines and scary stories?
The entire spectrum of the international Orthodox world is reeling from the recently published accounts surrounding a renowned, popular children’s author.
My children love his books. They have read each one tens of times. They grew up on his stories. They know many of them by heart. Just last Chanukah, I brought home two new volumes. It is validating and thought-provoking for children to read stories written through the perspectives of peers their own ages to process their emotions alongside the characters and to give words to their own experiences and feelings.
It is devastating to think that someone who has done so much good could possibly have such a sinister side to him.
But, unfortunately, there will always be evil in the world, and there will always be people who have no boundaries, who think they are above the rules, and who get away with it specifically because the picture is so blurry and complicated.
It almost always is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be as prevalent and as difficult to discern.
We can’t control the bad apples our children will encounter in life. And they will encounter them.
But we can educate and empower our youth to trust themselves.
In the #MeToo era, there is a lot more awareness regarding inappropriate encounters and interactions. But the problem is so much broader than that. And our education must get to the root of the issue.
Our children need to be taught to think for themselves, to take their feelings seriously, to not be too dependent or reliant on others, and to pay attention to how something makes them feel.
For a very long time, I have felt that as a community we can do better. Too many of our educational institutions are not empowering our young people in the ways that help them become healthy, autonomous, independent, self-reliant young adults.
I understand the challenge.
In addition to all of the above, we want our children to be committed, to be observant and to live a God-centered life, and none of that jives easily with messages of independence and autonomy.
But there are no shortcuts to a real and solid education.
I am all in favor of passing on the Torah beliefs, traditions, and practices that are at the core of my value system and of who I am.
But how do we do so?
Do we inspire through teaching content, through imparting knowledge, through asking good questions and encouraging thoughtful engagement with the issues? Or do we educate through fear, through guilt, through self-questioning and doubts, and maybe even through shame?
As a parent, it is important to think about how ideas and messages are conveyed to our children.
Before you send your child off to elementary school, high school, a summer camp or program, yeshiva, midrasha or college, there are relevant questions that can be asked:
- Is the environment one of mutual respect? How are students and campers spoken to? Are their feelings, thoughts and opinions related to with respect? Or is there an undertone of condescension, preaching, mocking and belittling in the interaction?
- Does the staff have humility? Do they admit when they don’t know something? Are they constantly looking to learn and grow from their students? Or is there arrogance, a belief that they have a monopoly on the truth and even a sense of entitlement?
- Are the students encouraged to be self-aware, to pay attention to how they react to something, to explore their experience and to listen to themselves as they go through a process? Or is the underlying message that students can’t be trusted to know what is good for them and that the educator knows the students and what is best for them even better than the students know themselves?
- Is there a system in place in the school or camp that allows for someone to report something they heard or experienced that left them feeling uncomfortable? Is there someone to speak to if a student encounters something they find troubling, even if it is just the tone and attitude with which they are addressed? Will they be taken seriously?
- Are mental health needs spoken about openly and as part of life? Are students given the resources to pursue professional help if they deem it important, or are mental health challenges stigmatized, swept under the rug and not dealt with?
- When you speak to alumni about what they experienced and the growth processes they went through, can they verbalize the educational methodology and what motivated them? Was it positive sources of inspiration, or negative? Were they pulled towards something that excited them or turned off to something else that left them feeling guilty, scared or ashamed?
- Are alumni capable of reflecting on something that was difficult or challenging for them about the environment they were in (because there are always bound to be things, even in the best of circumstances and experiences), or are they not willing or able to talk about some of the tougher aspects?
- Does the overall education leave the participants feeling more independent and capable or more tethered, anxious, dependent and unsure?
These are some of the questions that can help us think carefully about the right educational environments for our children. With older children, discussing these issues together can give room to allow them to become more sensitive to the trust and respect that they deserve.
Hopefully, most of our children will not encounter sexual predators in life, but they are bound to encounter educators, mentors, rabbis, counselors or authority figures who overstep their bounds and who can affect our children’s abilities to trust their instincts.
Our children may know that no one should touch their private parts. But do they know, and have we made it clear, that no one has the right to be playing with their minds or souls either?