Boys to men: Jewish education helps prepare kids for life
Raising three boys to be well-rounded, menschy men isn’t easy, and I admit to making one or two mistakes (per hour) in my efforts to guide my sons toward actions that reflect soulfulness, integrity and compassion.
As my children grow, so do my expectations of their accountability for their decisions. However, there is much that I — that all of us — can do, as our sons lurch toward manhood. In partnership with their educators, we can make a difference in helping them become stand-up young men.
Seeing the impact of an ethically based Jewish high school, both as a parent and as a professional in the school, I’ve witnessed much to give me hope. This is in spite of all the news spotlighting boys walking onto campuses to vent rage and fear with bullets, and young men at colleges assaulting women.
As an educator, I’ve witnessed how much of an effect the parent-educator partnership can have. I’ve seen boys who have reacted in anger to classroom situations learn to recognize the triggers and articulate frustration productively. I’ve seen young men poke fun at weaker kids on one day, then, weeks later, encourage those same kids when they’re teamed up on a soccer field. I’ve seen shy freshman boys who tease girls at the lockers later become superb co-leaders with young women in student government.
All of this requires parents to engage with educators, giving context to the students’ situation, expressing hopes for their children’s maturation and staying consistent on a plan of action. Meanwhile, teachers, deans and administrators must spend ample time talking, setting boundaries and goals, and following through with the young men and their parents.
I do not profess to have easy answers. Negative things can happen in spite of all the right efforts. However, I do believe in the power of a parent-school commitment to painstakingly and repeatedly teach our boys values and behavior that help them navigate their emotions and the expectations placed on them by a society that too often rewards aggression.
One of my conclusions: Leading by example trumps everything. So many times, I have lectured my boys with a torrent of words, only to realize they don’t hear much of it. What they do gather are my actions. When they’ve seen me disagree with their mother, they’ve watched me listen to her side as much as argue my own. And when I’m wrong, I admit it (even if it’s long after the argument). When greeted by a homeless person asking for money, they’ve witnessed how I say hello and often give something, usually a food item, because I want to stress that ignoring someone in need is a missed opportunity to have a direct impact.
I’ve also discovered that there may be no skill more important than communication. Being able to articulate an idea, concern or feeling can make life much easier in everything from business to personal relationships. This is especially important for guys to learn because, even in this more egalitarian age, males still find it difficult to express their emotions and needs, which sometimes results in the building up of tension that gets released negatively.
As an educator at a Jewish high school, I’ve noted how role modeling and communication can be addressed through tradition and text. This is why we commit a year’s worth of assemblies to hearing senior students give presentations, called drishat shalom (messages of peace and wholeness). The students each summarize a piece of Jewish text, explaining what the text has taught them about particular values and recommending ways younger students can apply the values.
It is also why we gather our entire school for a yearly off-campus Shabbaton. Some of the programming is led by kids from all grade levels and allows them the time to value their relationships with one another and with their teachers. Because faculty often bring family with them, students see first-hand how these adults model the values they espouse.
Of course, teachers and pupils need to notice when students seem upset. When necessary, an experienced school counselor and the parents must be brought into the loop.
I feel so fortunate to raise my boys in partnership with an ethics-based Jewish school. Although I am still ultimately responsibile for rearing my children, I don’t have to be the only role model, and I don’t have to do all of the complicated explaining of why character counts so much. In these ways, I am more confident that my boys, and the many others who are educated similarly, can become the kind of role models and communicators who will make the world a little safer and better.