By Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Ever since my book “Children of Character — Leading Your Children to Ethical Choices in Everyday Life,” was published last year, I have been frenetically running around the country speaking to groups of all shapes, sizes and religious persuasions about issues of values, parenting and character development.
No matter who they are and regardless of their background, 100 percent of the time they identify parents as the No. 1, primary moral models for their children.
The remarkable thing about parenting is that it often seems as if so much of our children’s development is out of our hands. Our children’s values seem to be the result of the general social milieu in which our kids are growing up today. For example, it’s sobering to realize that the top seven school problems in 1940 were “talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress code and loitering.” Teachers would pay to have such problems today, since by 1987, the top seven school problems in the country were “drug abuse, alcohol, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.” What a list! No wonder parents are in a panic, searching for the magic answers to how to raise kids with character, good values and a strong moral sense.
Look no more, because the answers are deceptively simple, and can actually be found in the chapters of this week’s Torah portion. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example isn’t the main thing in influencing others, it’s the only thing.” Now although that may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it is fundamentally true that the primary way we influence the behavior of others, especially our children, is by example. That is exactly the lesson of Deuteronomy 6:5-9.
When James Baldwin said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them,” he could have just as well been the inspiration for this Torah passage.
The secrets to effective parenting, and especially to effective values education, is found in a section that remains one of the best known, and most often recited paragraphs of the entire Torah — the Shema. It begins with the most often quoted sentence in the entire Torah — “Hear, O Israel! Adonai our God, Adonai is one.” And of course, you know the rest — it’s called the Veahavta and it contains the Torah’s not-so-secret advice for exactly how to raise children of character (almost better than my book!).
The Veahavta is really a parent’s guide to raising ethical children. It teaches the reader that “love” isn’t expressed by feeling, but by doing. We demonstrate love for God by taking to heart the idea that we have a sacred obligation to fulfill mitzvot, by teaching them to our children and by creating visible symbols and reminders of our challenge to bring godliness into the world.
The secret parenting key in the Veahavta is found in the subtle commandment that we must first take the words of Torah into our own hearts, and only then can we teach them to our children. The message is that we can only be effective teachers of Torah to our children, after and if they see that Torah is important to us. Otherwise, why should they care? So the Torah essentially sums up the key to successful parenting in three words — example, example, example. It is in being the kind of adult we want our children to grow up to become.
The Veahavta provides a blueprint for effective parenting, by challenging us to be moral models for our kids and understanding that it’s a full-time 24-hour-a-day job. We don’t get to say, “Pay attention to how I act on Monday, but don’t watch me on Tuesday.” Instead, the Veahavta reminds us that we are always role models — “when you sit inside your house or walk upon the road, when you lie down and when you rise.” That’s why the Torah is the most ancient parenting book of all.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel.
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