Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Educating our children with mixed messages

Today I happened upon a birthday party for pre-teen Jewish children. The boys wore yarmulkes and the food was kosher, but the entertainment was, well, not dressed in a manner I might have expected for observant Jewish children.

This led me to contemplate the strange things we do to our children. We have such high expectations for their development – emotional, religious, intellectual, physical , etc. We spend exorbitant sums, endless hours and many sleepless nights to achieve those goals. And yet, we defeat our own ends by sending them mixed educational messages, on a regular basis.

What do we expect our children - these creatures who lack both the neural hardware and the experience-based software to properly digest such conflict - to make of this?

I’m not talking about sheer parental wickedness here; bad as that is, the mixed-message phenomenon can actually be worse. When parents present an outright bad model, children can see it, and accept or reject it. We don’t gravitate to a Kayin or an Esav. (Also, see Rama on the challenge of doing teshuvah for a possible sin, as opposed to doing teshuvah for a known sin.) Mixed messages, though, can lead children to question the sincerity of every role model they meet.

Of course, mixed messages are, to a certain extent, unavoidable. For example: Kids hear about not losing your temper, about handling situations in a healthy and productive way, about analyzing problems and developing a solution, and then they see you express uncontrolled anger. But that’s normal; every mortal parent goes through that experience, and it can be a chance to teach our children.

My problem is with the birthday parties, the scenarios we create, the worlds we form for our children with forethought and volition, which send them conflicting messages.

My own example: One of our daughters took karate lessons when we lived in Allentown, in a co-ed environment. The halachic calculation was fairly straightforward: Despite the physical contact, she was young enough that she didn’t qualify for chinuch (halachic education), the chibah issues did not apply for her at that age and so there was no issue of ספי לה איסורא בידים, and there were no other options for much-needed organized physical outlets for her.

But now my daughter is older, and I am teaching her about gender-separation on a level appropriate for her age. She can remember the experiences of a year ago. She is not old enough to understand what has changed and what will soon change, and it is not yet time for a full-fledged explanation. I know she wonders why we are doing things differently now.

It’s a mixed-message situation, parents having sanctioned something in the past and now revoking their endorsement. I don’t know that I could have done things any differently, but I must recognize that if she is confused about gender-separation, it’s a confusion that I generated, myself.

Similar mixed messages that parents convey:
Prohibiting foul language but then speaking it ourselves;
Condemning certain kinds of movies but watching them ourselves;
Insisting that our kids go out and exercise but not doing it ourselves;
Telling our kids that Talmud Torah is important, but never opening a sefer in front of them and never taking them to a shiur;
Insisting on sharing and compromise but failing to demonstrate it;
Talking about tzedakah but taking extravagant vacations;
Impressing upon our children the importance of kavvanah [focus] during prayer and then talking to others during the davening.

What can we do about these mixed messages, the avoidable as well as the unavoidable? I look at the elements within Torah that offer mixed messages, and that gives me an idea.

I see the mixed messages that appear from the Torah’s icons, the leaders who startle us with actions that don’t seem to fit. Whether it’s Sarah or Moshe or Miriam or Dovid, these figures have a remarkable track record of righteousness... which makes their apparent diversion from that record all the more jarring. And I realize that because these leaders have such a grand and complete resume of greatness, these diversions stand out only as exceptions and not the rule, not the model, not what we would select to emulate. Their consistent righteousness drowns out the odd mixed message.

And that’s my thought for today: Drown out the mixed messages with clear ones.

Mixed messages are part of life, and children will need to learn to deal with gray areas. But as a parent I need to recognize that I can be a confusing teacher. If my children are confused, the fault is not necessarily with them. Or to quote the old computer programming maxim, GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

So I need to take every opportunity to introduce enough clear and consistent messages to drown out the mixed ones. If they see regular Torah learning, hear regular clean language, participant in healthy living and focused davening, then the mixed messages will be the exception rather than the rule, the “man bites dog” instead of the “dog bites man,” and that should decrease their influence. Or so I can hope.


  1. Are you channeling Emerson?
    "Do not say things. What you are stands over you
    and thunders so I cannot hear what you say
    to the contrary."
    --Ralph Waldo Emerson

    one of my favorites-thank you Rabbi Dulitz

    Joel Rich

  2. Thanks for the דבר בעתו quote. I must have read it at some point, because I have long loved Emerson, but I didn't remember it.

  3. Yes, mixed messages can be confusing for our children, and can result in the wrong lessons being learned. That is particularly true for the "do as I say not as I do" situations. (Just a little note here: while saying that using bad language is wrong and then using it ourselves is a case of opposites, tzedaka is not the opposite of an extravagant vacation (and that "extravagant" surely needs specific definition--one man's normal can very well be another man's extravagant, one man's affordable can be another man's debt producing luxury, one man can have both while another man can do neither one).

    But there is a really grey area when it comes to matters that may be age related, such as your daughter and the karate lessons. Different parents have different yardsticks they use to decide on when certain activities are appropriate or not. Not every parent uses the same timeline, which can confuse children even more, especially when they are told they can no longer do something but some of their friends are still doing that thing, or vice versa. It can be confusing to children when one day something is allowed and the next day it is forbidden or when one day something is forbidden and now it is allowed. There's a good reason why parents sometimes resort to "You'll understand when you're older"--it's true.

    The simplest example of this is when a parent will allow a child to go to visit a friend in the neighborhood all by themselves. The age at which we allowed this behavior was not necessarily the same age as other parents decided on. In one class you could have many standards in play.

    My mother wisely told me not to beat myself up about this type of confusion. She said that perfect and parent have only one thing in common--their first letter.

  4. This post really speaks to me because I am repeatedly guilty of sending mixed messages to my children. It is something I struggle with often. Sometimes, when I know that I've gone too far and done something that I don't want them to do (using a curse word, or gossiping meanly), I'll say "What I just did was really not nice. I'm sorry I did it. I hope that you won't copy me. I don't want you to grow up to be like me. I want you to become a much better person than I am".
    I hope that they internalize that message.

  5. Perhaps the biggest problem is, "Do what the Rabbi says" and then either ignoring him yourself or worse. I wonder how many times a parent asks a Rabbi to talk to a child planning on intermarrying after having spent years making clear that the parent does not really respect said Rabbi.

  6. The issue is a human one: it is very hard even for well-disciplined people to be consistent all the time, though more sensitive people will make the effort. I think many people tend to take their Judaism for granted. Because they don't think about their own observance, they allow themselves to become so used to certain cultural mores that it would never occur to them those mores are problematic. For instance, people have become so used to lewd references in movies that they don't think it's problematic anymore; it's simply a normal aspect of a movie. The key is to make the effort to think about what our traditions mean, not simply to observe them by rote.

  7. ProfK-
    Thanks for the comment; lots to ponder there. And I really like the parent/perfect line.

    I hear, but by what right do we expect our children to be "better" than we are?

    I don't know anyone who doesn't respect the rabbi.

    Yes, I'd agree that this is central. Certainly when working with children, whose sensitivities are just being formed.