I appreciate your taking the time to read these thoughts. I hope they will be helpful to you and to your family.
The ideas discussed here are relevant twelve months a year. I am especially moved to share them now, in the weeks leading up to the summer, as it is important to prepare ourselves and our children properly for the summer and its opportunities and challenges, whether our children will be spending the summer at home or away at camp.
Engaged parents make all the difference in the life of a child. The nature of contemporary society has made engaged parenting all the more challenging, as the increasing demands on our time and attention distract us from focusing on our children, and as the ubiquitous connectivity prevents our children from paying much attention to us. There is much lost when parents are not there to provide their children with the security and safety of a listening ear and of healthy and loving guidance. And child-rearing is made much more complex when instead of sensibly introducing our children to the complexities of life at the appropriate ages and stages, these complexities intrude on our children in a rush.
Every parent should make the following a principle component of his or her mission statement:
“I wish to craft the relationship with my child such that that my child will instinctively and comfortably turn to me when they have an issue of concern. And if for some reason they are not turning to me, I must make every effort to ensure that they have someone in their life – my spouse, a teacher or mentor – to whom they can securely confide.”
In addition, as our children will often not turn to us, we should be regularly turning to our children, both by explicitly checking in with them to see how they are, and by observing them to ensure that their eyes continue to shine bright and that their demeanor does not reflect a developing sadness or pain that for one reason or another they have hesitated to communicate to us.
In this realm, four specific issues deserve elaboration.
- Sexual Abuse Education and Response
Over the past few years there has been much discussion about the issue of child sexual abuse. As parents, we have the ability and the responsibility to educate our children to significantly increase their safety from this scourge. Parents must educate their children as to what is and is not an acceptable behavior. This does not require – and should not entail – complex or frightening discussions. Simply find an opportunity to remind the child to resist uncomfortable touch, and that their private parts are just that, and that nobody – friend, relative or any authority figure other than their doctor – should be allowed to touch them there. Opportunities for sharing this can be bath times for young children, dressing or clothes shopping for older children, or at the time of a doctor’s appointment. Make sure to find such an opportunity before camp season.
It should go without saying that in the area of child sexual abuse all relevant mandated reporting laws must be followed. In addition to contacting the authorities, one should be sure to share any specific safety concerns with individuals who are in a position to address them responsibly and effectively. And know that even non-reportable events may be emotionally harmful and may require intervention and support.
- Observing and Speaking With Your Children
When discussing sexual abuse, our tendency is to think of the highly publicized cases involving authority figures or other types of predators. While these situations are of grave concern, an issue often overlooked – and arguably more common – is inappropriate sexual behavior experienced alone, or between siblings and peers.
While reliable statistics are not readily available, the experience of many in the field is that these behaviors appear to be increasingly common as a result of our over-sexualized society, and of the constant exposure via various media to sexualized behavior. This reality poses a challenge to young and old, and proves difficult even for adults with a more mature approach to these matters, engaged in satisfying marital relationships. For our children who do not yet have a forum for the healthy expression of these urges, the challenge may be overwhelming, producing two common results.
First, it can move the child to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior alone, including masturbation and the viewing of pornography. And second, it can lead to sexual experimentation between siblings or friends. These interactions may be between two consenting young people, or may be imposed by one upon the other.
As parents we must be vigilant for either of these behaviors. Vigilance would include steps such as limiting and monitoring access to media, being actively aware of excessive time spent alone or with siblings or friends in a private bedroom, and – as mentioned earlier – observing our children to ensure that their eyes continue to shine bright, and that their demeanor does not reflect the inevitable sadness or pain that engagement in these behaviors generates.
Of course the ultimate preventive measure is an open and trusting relationship – with you or with a trusted other – where your child is comfortable discussing and exploring their struggles with sexual issues. (Please see Klal Perspectives Summer 2012, http://klalperspectives.org/rabbi-moshe-hauer-3/), for a discussion of the advice of Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l on this delicate and important subject.)
III. Engaged Parenting and Substance Abuse
It is an unfortunate reality that many young people are engaged in substance abuse. It is a fortunate reality that the most effective prevention program is affordable and readily available: engaged parenting. In the words of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia):
CASAColumbia has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify situations and circumstances that influence the risk of teen substance abuse. What we have learned is that parental engagement in children’s lives is fundamental to keeping children away from tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, and that parents have the greatest influence on whether their teens will choose not to use substances. Our surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their smoking, drinking or using other drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children. Simply put: frequent family dinners make a big difference.
The role of engaged parenting in preventing such behaviors is twofold. First, in an engaged environment parents are constantly checking in with their children, formally or informally, and changes in behavior and mood are immediately noticed. Second, parental engagement provides the child a framework of caring, individual worth, and transmission of values that serves as a bulwark against self-destructive behavior.
Of course there are times when our lifestyle limits such opportunity, such as when children are away at camp, or when they are in yeshiva or seminary away from home for extended periods of time. These situations – if and when they are the appropriate choices – require us to creatively simulate the family dinner concept. First, out of sight need not mean out of mind. Easy telephone access means that parents can maintain frequent, substantive contact with their children who are away, thus checking in remotely. In addition, the environment they choose for their children to be away in can itself be more homelike, with meaningful, positive supervision and the institutional equivalent of a “family dinner” framework.
It is critical that our children do not find themselves wandering around, either after school hours or during vacation times. While unstructured time is a gift of summer and important for children, there is a big difference between safe and unsafe unstructured time, and between unstructured time in a home environment and unstructured time on the street. Parents should ensure that their children are not heading to summer with “no plans”.
Parents should familiarize themselves with the specific warning signs of substance abuse, including physical signs such as bloodshot eyes and nosebleeds, tremors and poor coordination, or changes in appetite or sleep patterns; behavioral signs such as becoming withdrawn and secretive, deterioration of performance in school or work, and changes in relationships; or psychological signs such as the onset of anxiety, irritability, hyperactivity or lethargy.
- Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are a matter of growing concern, especially amongst the young women – single and married – of our community. This phenomenon is encouraged by peer pressure and by a cultural idealization of thinness, and by an emphasis on diet and exercise for the sake of appearance rather than for good health and vigor. Parents play a critical role in modeling healthy attitudes and behavior regarding diet and exercise, in emphasizing true internal qualities over external appearance, and in carefully encouraging a child’s healthy self-image.
Parents play a critical role as well in the early detection of a developing eating disorder, before the child becomes too deeply enmeshed in a food-phobic world she constructs for herself. Parents should be on the lookout for an obsessive preoccupation with food, including a growing list of avoided foods; for chronic and exaggerated dissatisfaction with appearance; for excessive exercising; and for emerging patterns of irritability, secretiveness and deception.
Both for the sake of early detection, and for the value of opening the channels of communication, parents should not be afraid to discuss the issue of eating disorders with their children if they feel or sense any emerging risk. As parents we must give our children awareness of the danger and of the slippery slope towards a truly life-threatening condition. We must also provide them with understanding of whatever concerns or frustrations they may be feeling as a result of real or perceived peer pressure. And it is worth noting that these conditions seem to often affect the over-achievers, the best and most popular students and the hardest workers, whose impressive achievements may sometimes be a cover for deep-seated issues of self-esteem.
In any case of concern, it is critical to enlist the advice and involvement of a mental health professional with a specialization in eating disorders.
There is no substitute for engaged parenting. Make absolutely sure that your child feels safe to confide in you. It is essential that each child feel that they can safely share their concerns with a trusted parent who will take them seriously and act in their best interests. Check in with them consistently – as casually and as naturally as you can – to make sure that they are “okay”, that they are not experiencing any kind of harassment or bullying, and that that they feel and act generally happy, healthy and secure. Make sure they understand that if they are experiencing some difficulty, you would want to know about it and help them through it. And if they do share concerns with you, react promptly and responsibly, without allowing your own sense of shame or guilt to hold you back.
I pray that G-d grant us the privilege to see all of our children thrive in every way, and that we as parents and as a community provide them with the support and security that they deserve.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer
Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.