By Esther Lichtenstein
We all want to matter. Everyone secretly wishes to be an inspiration, to be able to touch peoples’ hearts and souls in the most profound way. A life that has achieved a lasting mark on the world was not simply born so; it was made so.
Being an early childhood teacher has brought me some of the most exhilarating and- believe it or not- inspiring experiences of my life. Every morning, twenty little faces tumble into the classroom and push to be the first to tell me about a new toy helicopter, a stitched cut, even a new pair of neon converse sneakers. Last Friday, Hannah was absent. The following Monday morning she gushed about her weekend trip to Turks & Caicos. Turks & what?! I had to Google it. Turns out, it’s a small island in the Caribbean. (So much for my self-assumed worldliness.) Point is, she wanted me to know every minute detail- from takeoff to landing- of her trip. She needed for me to know.
Children are anxious to matter, to make a difference, to be special. I’m greeted every day by children eager go the extra mile (or ten miles) to make me proud and to earn a grin, a compliment, hi-five, or even just a nod of approval. Their faces never fail to light up when singled out for praise of good work or behavior. The vision repeats itself as we read Mitzvah notes for all to hear and applaud. For grownups on the other hand, that special youthful enthusiasm has ebbed away and for the most part has eroded as our young years wane. Too many of us sit idly watching our lives roll by, filling our moments with cheap thrills and our years with meaningless occupations. Gone are the interests for self discovery and the yearning for greatness. Gone are the desires to make ordinary days into extraordinary ones, let alone the notion of interrupting our humdrum lives by lighting up another.
Before entering the field of education, I had no idea what it would be to bring meaning into someone’s life. All through high school, a year in Israel, three years of college, and a semester in Italy, I was living pretty much for myself. Sure, I had ambitious career aspirations, but no burning desire to inspire the world as I now have. When you get the feel of what it’s like to make that big difference, you’re hooked.
Of course grown-ups DO want to impress, but in a different way. The arena of professional competition is fierce at the workplace and it takes a lot more than raw ambition to succeed. However, just about anybody who aspires to the Corner Office wants to be acknowledged as having done superb to benefit his company. Ultimately, their dedicated work and professional drive are rewarded with a token of appreciation of some kind. Still though, remnants of youthful desire to make mommy proud have morphed into a hardened mentality of attaining excellence for our achievements. At some point in our lives, we become vividly focused on surviving the fierceness of competitiveness and less on thriving. We realize that we’ve gone as far as we will get. Somewhere along the road, we missed our dormant potential to make a real difference.
At graduating elementary school, the yearbook layout committee instructed us seniors to compose a short blurb about ourselves for personal yearbook entries. Some wrote about wacky inside jokes, funny nicknames they’d gotten stuck with over the years, and some about their future aspirations. Most kids in my grade aspired to being in charge of something cool in High School, choir head, color war captain, as if nothing else in the world mattered. My blurb was so long it took two weeks and four people to edit. In my dreams, it read: Esther Lichtenstein, aspiring archaeologist, IAF fighter pilot, crime scene investigator, Mossad agent, world-class hotel critic, trauma surgeon, foreign ambassador, shepherd, and of course, a Mets shortstop. (Not necessarily in that order.) Though my feet are on more solid ground, my imagination has thankfully not evaded me. Growing up doesn’t necessitate losing sight of the dreams we once had as wide-eyed kiddies. Children haven’t been told that they must give up and they usually won’t until their perceived need (often misinterpreted by them) to be forced to. Regardless of whether we are living up to our yearbook expectations, my hope is that we’ve grown and matured and attained the proper sense to be good, upstanding people.
As parents and teachers, we all aim to impart the proper moral values to our children. Throughout history, human beings have always been concerned with the type of people that their children turn out to be. For centuries, scholars, social-scientists, and educators have addressed the topic of the development of morality in children. Throughout this time, the role of adults and especially parents in their children’s development has been a central focus- and perhaps the most pivotal. Instilling the proper moral character in children relies heavily on the influence of parents and teachers.
We must recognize what “morality” means. There is a great big hullabaloo over what constitutes morality being that it is a hugely subjective concept. What’s considered “moral” or “good” in Brooklyn is likely not the same as what is proper in Bangladesh or Bucharest. Many countries today have ethnic cleansing, racism, racial profiling, polygamy (just to name a few) that are rampant and for the most part accepted- or better yet- expected. In America, self-respecting people don’t eat cats, dogs, frogs, and snails. In other places… well, you know. Each society develops its own set of norms and standards of conduct, so what is considered ‘moral’ becomes subject to cultural conditioning, in spite of that fact, we must agree that the fundamental concepts of morality are values shared by all democratic civilized societies.
The transmission of moral values in our communities- honesty, integrity, honoring parents, hard work, respect, and religious observance- becomes the natural process by which functioning families share a deep, intrinsic bond. All children (let’s be realistic now) occasionally misbehave and act selfishly, sometimes at the detriment of others. The duty of parents is to teach their children to differentiate between right and wrong; whether by reinforcing the good behaviors or bemoaning the bad ones. Parents who fail at this task and who don’t hold their children’s behavior to a higher moral standard will see their children misbehave due to their lack of stability.
Let me tell you about Leora. At four years old, this tiny little lady possesses every fashion accessory that twenty year olds can only dream of. Fluffy pink pumps, strands of multi-colored crystal bead necklaces, ballet flats in colors and prints I never knew existed when I was four- or ten even. I am only getting started; Jeweled headbands, sparkle lip gloss, nail polish, an assortment of socks so vast and varied it puts hosiery shops to shame. Little Leora refuses to follow instructions or to participate in classroom activity. She is rude and demanding when her needs are not met. When the teachers try to prod her to participate, she crawls into her cubby and hides there. Never a day without a tantrum. I recently had a meeting with her mother, who told me that “At our house, there are no rules, no set times for meals or bed, unlimited television and computer games. We let the children enjoy the freedom to do as they please.” At school, as we try to convey the opposite, conflicts arise. This in consistency destroys the child’s mind.
Because we work with the youngest children, preschool and elementary school teachers in particular have the perfect opportunity (and responsibility) to mold the children into responsible human beings who have moral and social obligations. Some of the traits that we try to instill are patience, empathy, respect, following rules. We hear shocking stories every day about kids getting into all sorts of trouble for lack of moral compass. These stories have shaken our society’s institutions into taking initiative and becoming more socially concerned for the coming generations of adults.
The big question is how to achieve our goals as parents and teachers to produce responsible, socially adjusted individuals who are honest, respectful and kind? The answer is by example. As the old Jewish saying goes, “Through his actions, a man is formed” (Sefer HaChinuch). A person’s character is formed by repetitive behavior and activity. Through the doing, one comes to the understanding. By exemplifying all that is considered to be moral and good, parents and teachers play a critical role in communicating values to their children. Parents exert a level of influence on their kids (especially the younger ones), setting examples through daily interaction. First and foremost, children look up their parents and siblings more than to anyone else, therefore, the intimate family structure is the best laboratory in a child’s total development.
The most imperative lesson to be learnt by adults is this: Children learn by example. As such, only positive behavior must be consistently exhibited. Teaching morality by example would mandate all adults in the presence of children to be responsible and upstanding contributing members of family and of society. One crucial question we should ask ourselves: Who are my child’s role models? Celebrities are not role models, they cannot be. What kind of message is communicated to children when their favorite baseball player, actress, or pop star gets busted for drug use or… worse? Children should look up to solid individuals who have good judgment, who exercise proper values. Children who emulate poor role models are recipes for disaster.
Teaching via example means that when at Six Flags theme park, ten year-old Jonathan’s mother won’t stretch his age to twelve so that he will be allowed onto the mature rides. It means that when the telephone rings at the Levy residence, the father won’t instruct his children to tell the caller that daddy isn’t home while he is playing brick-breaker on his BlackBerry. Showing by example is letting our children see us opening our homes to the poor and needy. Letting them observe how we resolve conflict. Explaining the importance of giving ample Hakarat Hatov where it is due. Paying taxes and parking tickets. Holding the door open. Not interrupting. Asking for help. There is a lesson to be learnt in everything that we do.
It is a well-worn concern of parents and teachers that more attention must be paid to the moral character of their children. The alarming rate reflecting the misdeeds of today’s youth is compelling us to take proactive measures in becoming part of the solution. Parents are centrally important by virtue of their concern for their child’s physical, emotional, and social development and welfare. True moral behavior is best developed through warm, caring parenting and consistent expectations, with emphasis on the reinforcement of positive behaviors. Teachers’ role is equally vital based on their extensive daily interaction with their students, having the opportunity to provide the types of interactions which facilitate moral development, as well as the ability to practice moral reasoning and actions as part of class curriculum. The ideal is for parents and teachers to cooperate in children’s moral education by exemplifying the exceptional qualities and characteristics that children should want to emulate. We must step up and take part in the building of the next generation.
Lessons learnt? Children see… Children do. Other than that… I have got to get out more.