Monday, April 23, 2018

"Free- range Parenting"- Are We Overprotective?

On May 8,  Utah will be the first state to protect parents’ rights to practice “free-range parenting” of their children by changing what is considered child neglect.   Under this law, neglect does not include “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm  or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities,” such as going to school, to the park, local stores or bicycling by themselves. The goals of this new legislation is to protect parents who allow children to do things like travel alone to school,  and to prevent “nuisance” calls from taking time away from child protective services from dealing with serious issues of neglect.

Lenore Skenazy has popularized the term “free- range parenting,”  and is the author of  Free- Range Kids : Giving Our Children the Freedom We had Without Going Nuts With Worry.   She has written about the negative effects of overparenting and overprotection so that children are not growing with the necessary coping skills for independence.  “Free- range” is the term used with livestock when they are kept under natural conditions. Free -range parenting is a parenting philosophy where children are raised with less parental supervision to accept realistic risks meant to be consistent with the child’s developmental age. It is often seen as the opposite of “helicopter parenting.”  Most states have laws that assert that a children need to be a certain age to be left alone. Skenazy maintains that children can only learn to make good decisions in risky situations by practicing the need to do so independently, and  that is what free- range parenting allows.   

How about child safety and dangerous predators and accidents?   A recent article by Melissa Mayer on Apri 11, 2018 in Health News noted that actually the world is safer than it has ever been.  “When it comes to all dangers one might imagine unattended children face- death, abduction, traffic accidents- the incidence for all of those things was historically low and infinitesimally small.  In fact, an unaccompanied child is more likely to be hit by lightning than experience premature death or stranger abduction.” In this world where we teach “stranger danger” to our children, (and I maintain we should!), free -range parents preach a different message: “The world is inherently safe, humans are mostly kind and young people are definitely capable.”

Despite this reality, with constant media access, it does seem that the world is a more dangerous place. And, with cell phones allowing us to have connection with our children, it does provide some reassurance to parents, but we still believe that unsupervised children are in danger.  

LenoreSkenazy feels that there a number of reasons why parents are fearful for their children today. The media is always broadcasting tragic and scary news.  Our culture is litigious and people are constantly focused on negligence and risk.  Experts are always telling parents that they are parenting wrong and in a manner that’s harmful to their children.  The child safety industrial complex will convince parents of danger so that they can sell their safety devices.  “If you can convince parents that their kids are in any kind of danger- physical, psychological, emotional- you can get them to buy almost anything ...once you have rewritten childhood as a  minefield, (even as child mortality rates reach historic lows), you can sell parents anything.” Skenazy adds that now that we are in constant contact with our children and “can know everything about your child every second of every day, anytime you choose not to know, you are making a conscious decision to opt out of your role as
omniscient protector. This means, that now, if something bad does happen, instead of sympathy, the parent can expect a dose of haters: ‘Why didn’t she GPS him?’ ‘Why wasn’t she watching more closely?

A few weeks ago, CBS aired an episode of 48 Hours interviewing those who were on the case of Eitan Patz’s disappearance in 1979. Eitan was a six year old who was allowed to walk to his school bus stop two blocks from his house for first time by himself and was abducted. That case “changed the way parents watched over their kids.”  That is understandable.   

 I am not saying that I agree with Skenazy.  I am quite an overprotective mother myself. But, there is an element of truth in her words. This past week, as we commemorated Yom Hashoah, I often think of the young ages of my my grandparents who were older teens during the horror, or even of the younger ones, like Rabbi Lau, who was a small child.  G-d forbid that our children should ever experience something like that, but when one thinks about how these children were able to face difficulty at such a young age- they had resiliency that our children do not have nowadays.  My Zeidy used to tell how at the age of 9 he started his own business to help raise money for his family.  My 9 year old is busy going to baseball and playing Lego.   

And, as we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, I think about how Israeli children are more resilient than in a row,  according to the UN’s annual Happiness Report. The United States is 18th.  How is it possible that they face the challenges of being surrounded by enemies and their teens need enter the army, and yet they are the 11th happiest country?  Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, whom I have quoted in the past, famous for his development of the science of happiness, recently returned to Israel after being abroad. for 15 year, (some of that time  teaching his famous course on Happiness at Harvard).   I recently watched a documentary where  Ben Shahar analyzes what makes Israel special called “Israel Inside: How A Small Nation Makes A Big Difference.” Ben Shahar notes that Israelis’ focus on family is one reason for the happiness they have.  More importantly, everyone is family.  He humorously notes that when he goes to the park with his children, he gets numerous pieces of unsolicited advice about how to raise them.  Why? Because every person in Israel is family.  He then interviews others who note that small children can cross the street alone in Israel for they know that some adult will stop and hold his hand… again, unsolicited.  Children walk to school alone, take buses by themselves and 9 year olds take their 3 year old siblings to playdates.  Perhaps it is the fact that all are family that allows Israelis to give their children that freedom. Israel has a strong sense of community, says Ben Arieh in the article, “It’s OK to walk Home Alone.- Compared to their American counterparts, Israelis prefer ‘free-range parenting’ over the hovering helicopter type.

Inbal Arieli, in her article “For Israeli Kids Every  Day is Independence Day” agrees. “From the moment they can raise their heads, we encourage our sons and daughters to explore the world around them without fear and constraint.” She speaks of the importance of parents “getting out of the way” and letting them go exploring even when it is not safe. She claims that this risk- taking explains the innovations and entrepreneurship  for which Israelis are famous. “We are a much less risk-averse society, and this willingness to make to make mistakes gives way to more resilient children and eventually, amazing inventions.” She continues to compare Israeli children to the Jews of the Torah who wandered in the desert for 40 years.  “They learn to take responsibility for their own destiny.”

I hate to argue with Ms. Arieli, but the Jews in the desert still had their “Parent” - Hashem to watch over them.  They did have a “omniscient Protector.” They were not simply wandering unsupervised in the desert.  Perhaps that is the secret to the independence- a knowledge that Hashem is there watching out for us.  That is the emunah found by those in the Holocaust and those children being raised in the miraculous Medinat Yisrael.  And, so there needs to be a happy medium.  Just like our Father in Heaven has modelled for us that the role of the parent is to provide some independence, but to always keep a watchful eye.  

Advisory Update
Sixth Grade- Students began a unit on bullying and the importance of being an upstander with some practical strategies.

Seventh Grade- As the beginning of their unit Do Not Stand Idly By- Students heard Mr. Shahar Azani from Stand With Us about the issues facing Israel in the world today. Students began learning about the BDS movement and the danger it poses for Israel.

Eighth Grade- Students began a unit on Substance Abuse and its effects.  Stay tuned to my column next week to hear more.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Cleaning for Pesach- Psychological Benefits?

When engaged in Pesach cleaning, I recently read an article which struck a chord about the topic of what in Sweden is called döstädning. The word döstädning means “death cleaning.”  No, it does not mean the heavy cleaning we do before Pesach!  It is a practice in Sweden where people get rid of material possessions that are not essential while they are still living, rather than leaving that work to their relatives.  This topic has been written about in the media lately due to the recent release of Margareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.
Kate Goldhaber, a therapist quoted in the Time Magazine article ”Death Cleaning is the Newest Way To Declutter,” asserts that this cleaning not only benefits those left behind after death, but also benefits the cleaner himself.  Clutter in one’s house raises stress levels and reduces productivity. Dr. Christopher Peterson, in his study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology,  points to the psychological impact of clutter.   In the article. “Six Benefits to Decluttering Your Life According to Science,” this research is presented.  Clutter impacts your ability to concentrate.  Physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress. Clutter essentially makes your brain multitask, so getting rid of it will turn you into a concentrating machine.”  A recent sleep study found that people who sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep difficulties including trouble falling asleep and sleep disturbances. The UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families demonstrated that clutter affects our mood and self-esteem.  There has also been a link found between high stress hormone levels in female home owners and a high density of household objects.  And, of course, decluttering helps us let go of the past which is often full of emotions that hold us back.
In thinking of the positive psychological impact of “death cleaning” I considered, are there positive psychological impacts of cleaning for Pesach and ridding ourselves of Chametz (which is truly the purpose of the cleaning, after all)?
  According to Chazal, chametz represents the Yetzer Hara- the evil inclination.  In fact, a Gemara in Berachot 17a states, ““Rabbi Alexandri would end his daily prayers with the following supplication: ‘Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to your will; but what prevents us from doing so? - the yeast in the dough...’” There is some connection with Chametz and sin.  Rabbi Alexandri sees “seor” (the word for yeast in the dough) as representing that desire for sin.  As Rabbi Alex Israel states, “ Rabbi Alexandri in this text, sees ‘se’or’ as a metaphor for the powerful drives and inflammatory passions that lurk within us all. Our mind has the ability to distort the reality of our vision, inflate our desires and draw us in directions that we would never take if we were to follow only our cold rational side. The impulse to evil ferments and corrupts. It makes flour and water appear as soft warm enticing bread. Chametz is the evil inclination! It is the “yeast in the dough” which allows us to lose self-control, which invites irrational decisions and leads us to impropriety.” While we remove Chametz because it is a mitzvah, as we do so we in essence need to search through our actions and look for our weaknesses in standing up to our impulses- clearly a positive psychological result.  
        Chametz also represents the ego- as it rises.  The search for and eradication of chametz represents that suppression of one’s ego.  Rabbi Naftali Zilberberg points out, “true spiritual growth begins with total humility, recognizing that without G‑d all pride is simply misplaced arrogance.” Psychologically speaking, there are definitely benefits of having a strong ego,(and I mean that as a strong self-esteem and self- importance and not the strict Freudian explanation).  But, having “too much ego” has its negative effects. When we allow our the need to maintain our egos to overcome our decision making in life it leads to trouble.  Catherine Huang, in her article, “Ways Ego Can Ruin Your Life” outlines some of those troublesome effects. We cannot tolerate making mistakes, or failure.  We lose humility thinking that we have all the answers, and do not have the ability to learn from others or even from past experiences. Craving attention and the “petting” of our egos, we forget about doing the right thing and only yearn to get credit.  Ego often leads us to forget about ethics and rather pushes us to  yearn for attention.  We live life with an “imaginary audience” which prevents us from being true to ourselves.  We live in constant fear of what others will say about us. Our communication skills suffer as we don’t listen to others to understand, but rather waiting to insert our own opinions.
        As the Swedish engage in döstädning they achieve psychological benefits.  As we engage in Pesach cleaning, I know it’s not easy, but perhaps we can find a few moments to absorb some of the messages behind the removal of chametz through contemplating  what chametz represents in our lives.  
Advisory Update:
6th Grade;  Students discussed conflict in friendship and how to navigate that conflict.
7th Grade;  After a training session by Mrs. Shifra Srolovitz, a child life specialist, students decorated stuffed animals with positive words of encouragement to be given to ill children.  
8th Grade:  Students discussed honest and cheating they see in the world around them.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Embracing Disability And Moshe Rabbeinu

            At the death of Stephen Hawking this past week, there was much discussion about disability and its impact on his life and his scientific accomplishments.  There was much dismay by disability activists that many in the media portrayed Hawking at his death as being finally free of his disability.  In Jessica Roy’s article in the LA Times  “Erasing Stephen Hawking's disability erases an important part of who he was,” she quotes Andrew Gurza among those who were unhappy with this portrayal.    "His disability probably lent itself to him becoming such a great mind, probably more than most people," Gurza said. "Maybe [Hawking] wouldn't have written this book, maybe he wouldn't have thought about all these things if he weren't disabled."  Was his disability in actuality a blessing?
            You may know that our 7th graders are in the middle of a  unit in Advisory “When Life Gives You Lemons- Coping With Adversity in Life.” This year, one person we spoke of was Mandy Harvey, a finalist on America’s Got Talent, who was studying vocal music education when she lost her hearing.  The students watched a video which described how she cannot hear the music she plays on her ukulele, nor the accompanying musicians, but removes her shoes so she can feel the beat of the music in her feat as she sings. The students considered- Her whole life was music and then her hearing was gone.  “Everything I ever wanted was going away and I couldn’t stop it, ” she said.    But, Mandy did not give up. She was resilient.  (We discuss resiliency in Advisory). What contributed to this resiliency?  When her father suggested to her to play a song she originally thought that was “crazy.”  But, her father convinced her that she had to change her perspective.  “Music now is not about the sound, it’s about the feeling.”  She continues to share,  “It’s not the dream that I always had. That’s okay. Because I showed up and I did something I never believed I could do.”  

            Mandy Harvey performs a song she wrote called, “Try.”  In the song she speaks about her life being more grey than blue.  But, at the end, “There is no one for me to blame, ‘cause I know the only thing in my way is me.”  Our students discuss that it is her perspective and the way she thinks about the situation that makes the difference. She has upbeat thinking versus down and out thinking.  Mandy has the ability to see the cup half full and not half empty. Our students then learn the skills of positive self- talk.   We explain to the students that it is exactly what it sounds like - talking to yourself and telling yourself that encouraging messages. You can do it.  It will be okay.  You have succeeded before and you will succeed again. It is sort of what you would tell a friend when he/she is faced with trouble, but instead, you tell those encouraging words to yourself.

            I recently read an article in Mishpacha Magazine written by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark,  the dean of Beth Jacob Seminary of Montreal. The title was  “The Gift of Dyslexia: My only bechirah is in how I handle it.”  In this article, Rabbi Aisenstark shares that he has dyslexia.  He describes how when he was born, before World War II, no one recognized the disorder. He was told to simply, “work harder- a meaningless instruction if there ever was one.”  He continued to describe how he was forced to hide his disability. Even though he could not spell in English or Hebrew he finished school and even got semicha.  (The tests were given orally!)  He still cannot recall the order of things- like the parshiot, and even today he has a trick to recall the order of the berachot when called up to get an aliyah.  At the age of 60, he even has a trick to recall which is his right or left hand.  Reading is a chore, as he still reverses letters.  He proclaims that a benefit of that is that he is forced to daven slower- having more kavana. Rabbi Aisenstark describes that he is now an administrator of a school with over 600 students.  One can imagine how Rabbi Aisenstark can truly understand and support the students who have challenges.  His disability has made him a more effective educator.  He knows that everyone can succeed despite challenges.  
I never announced my disability from the rooftops, but, as you are reading, I do not hide it any longer. Hashem gave me this disability so that my life follows the trajectory that is most beneficial for me, one in which I can strive to fulfill the tafkid that He designated for me. Why should I hide something that is not of my doing? I had no bechirah as to whether I would have dyslexia — my only bechirah is in how I handle it. It certainly must be the best thing for me, even though I may not always see how.
Had I not had a problem with language, I might have chosen to become an editor or journalist. Had I been proficient in the multiplication tables, I might have gone into a math-related field. I am grateful that HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave me this disability, because it led me in the direction of chinuch, to which I have devoted my life...
What are the ingredients of success? You need to be crafty and have a tremendous amount of willpower to accomplish whatever it is you are striving for. You must have the emunah that if you try hard, Hashem will give you the siyata d’Shmaya to complete your unique mission.
Basya bas Pharaoh wanted the baby Moshe so badly that she stretched out her hand to grasp him, despite the seemingly an unbridgeable distance between herself and him. She tried hard and Hashem helped her.
As believing Jews, belief in the lot in life we were handed being G-d ordained is a form of positive self- talk and seeing the cup as half full. This is what G-d meant for me, for whatever reason I do not know,  and I am up to the challenge.
As we approach Chag HaPesach I often consider that Moshe Rabbeinu had a stutter.  He was “כבד פה וכבד לשון.” (There is a discussion as to what this phrase does mean, but many parshanim do explain it as a speech impediment of some sort). Why is it that the greatest Jewish leader that ever lived had this impediment? (In fact, I recently read that when the makers of the animated  Prince of Egypt made the movie, one of the rabbinic consultants discussed this issue with them. They consciously decided that Moshe could not be a believable leader with his stutter and decided to leave it out of the movie). I believe that Hashem was sending us a message about how to face challenges in life.  Hashem did not deem this stutter as an obstacle to Moshe’s leading  the entire Jewish people. It is Moshe himself who is concerned about his inability to be taken seriously. Hashem therefore provides Aharon as a spokesperson. But, Moshe must still speak.  You will speak all that I command you, and Aharon your brother will speak to Pharaoh” ( Shemot 7:2). Why? When Moshe said  לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי...כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי:I am not a man of words...for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” Hashem responded “ מִ֣י שָׂ֣ם פֶּה֘ לָֽאָדָם֒ ... הֲלֹ֥א אָֽנֹכִ֖י ה"Who gave man a mouth...Is it not I, the Lord?” Hashem is relaying the message that Moshe can overcome this challenge and can be the greatest leader that ever lived because Hashem is with him.  Hashem has given Moshe his challenge, but He also provides him with support to overcome that challenge.
We each face a different challenge in life. Every one of our children has his/her own challenge.  But, we can raise them to say that no matter what with positive perspective, positive self-talk, perseverance and emunah they can each grow to be Stephen Hawking or Mandy Harvey or Rabbi Aisenstark or Moshe Rabbeinu.
Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade; Students began a unit on friendship and what is a true friend?
Seventh Grade;  Students learned about upbeat versus down and out thinking and how to apply it to situations in their own lives. Students also had their first session of the Adolescent Life classes.
Eighth Grade: The pressures of being dishonest as they enter “the real world” were discussed. They also had wonderful sessions with Rabbi Beni Krohn and Mrs. Shoshana Samuels on relationships in Judaism.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Media And Its Message

As you  know, we have embarked on our Adolescent Life Classes in our middle school this month.  Eighth graders started last week. Seventh Graders start tomorrow.  Sixth graders will start the following week. (You will receive a detailed letter, if you haven’t yet, describing what we cover).  I always look forward to my sessions with my 8th graders, as they are on the precipice of adulthood, as they can truly begin to contemplate serious issues.

As a preface to my lesson on Judaism’s view of relationships,  I begin my sessions with the 8th grade girls with an activity. I ask them to think about what was the last TV show/movie that they watched that had a male/female relationship. I then ask them to describe the characters and their relationship.  Inevitably, they present how the relationships are generally based mostly on the physical, are fleeting or have ups and downs, people cheat on each other, and often one member of the couple is mistreated by the other.

I then present them with research on how the media (movies, TV etc.) have changed the way Americans,  (not even necessarily Jewish people),  view relationships...and not for the better.  One such study reports that subjects were given a list of movies and television shows and were asked how often they watch them.  The more exposure to these shows and movies the more it impacted on their view of love, romance and even a healthy relationship.  Julia Lippman, the author of the study,  states that “beliefs about relationships can have implications for relationship satisfaction and longevity."  A similar study done with married couples went so far as to say that actually the status of a relationship can be in jeopardy among frequent TV watchers. These frequent watchers believe the unrealistic portrayal of relationships on TV, and are therefore unsatisfied with their relationships. We talk about the statistics that  that 68% of all TV shows, other than the news, sports and children’s shows, contain sexual content?  75% of network prime-time shows contain either sexual dialogue or sexual behavior.  And, teens, ages 13 to 15, rank TV, magazines , movies and music as the top source of information about sexuality for them.   

The girls and I then continue to speak about the misrepresentation of good relationships they are watching and how Judaism’s view clearly leads to healthier and happier relationships- even according to the secular research presented.  

One  important component of this discussion with thei girls is my presenting to them the impact that the media has on their outlook on life.  We are constantly reinforcing the impact of the media and its message with our students.

One opportunity for such focus is a lesson  we have done  with students right after the super bowl.  We actually share with them an article written for parents by Caroline Knorr “Beer And The Super Bowl: Are Your Kids Watching?”  Knorr writes about the ads that the children are watching with us. “As adults, we may be evaluating an ad’s humor or creativity, but the impact on kids can be quite different. Remember the Budweiser frogs? So do kids. A study by the Center on Alcohol Advertising showed that 9- to 11-year-old kids had higher recall (73%) of the Budweiser frogs’ slogan than the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (39%). And kids knew what the frogs were selling: 81% identified beer as the product promoted by the frogs....But alcohol messaging needs to be managed with kids, since the simple truth is that they’re powerfully influenced by alcohol branding. There will also be plenty of junk food ads and more supermodels promoting products ranging from cars to flowers.”  What are the messages our children are getting? We want them as middle schoolers to think about those messages that are contrary to what is physically and emotionally healthy for them.

We also target this area when it comes to gender stereotypes.  Dr. Cynthia Spicher and Dr. Mary Hudak videotaped and categorized 118 cartoon characters from a single episode of Saturday morning cartoons. Characters were rated on sex, prominence, gender stereotyping, aggressive behaviors and occupational roles.  They found gender stereotypes still as evident as they were in the 1970’s when this research began. We share this research with our students and ask them the be critical media viewers.

And, then there is, of course, the impact of media on body image- on both boys and girls. There’s the research again… The amount of time kids spend watching TV, and movies is associated with how unhappy they are with their bodies and their desire to be thin. (The more TV they watch, the more they desire to be thin). In a study on ten year old boys and girls, after watching a clip from the TV show “Friends”  they said they were unhappy with their bodies. The more commercials students watched, the less satisfied they were with the way they looked, and the less confident they became.  We ask the students to focus on the fantasy of what they are viewing versus the fact of what is the reality.

We also discuss the impact of media on teens and violence. Whether viewing or playing violent content can impact on teen violence, or just desensitize our children. We want our children to understand why we are limiting their viewing when it comes to violence.

As parents, what can we do? Common Sense Media is a wonderful resource for parents about media use today for our children I am constantly going on the website before allowing my children to watch movies, TV shows or even read books.  Some tips they provide:   We need to speak to our children about viewing media with a critical eye. We need to point out to them the message the ad or TV show is sending them and why it is not accurate.  We can challenge the assumptions the media is portraying.  We need to make our values clear and how they differ from what they are watching.  As always, look for teachable moments to discuss what they are watching.  Don’t allow your children to watch behind closed doors.  And, they are still young enough that we should be monitoring their media use and even limiting their access to certain types  of media.

It says in Bamidbar 15:39 as we daven each day,
וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם
“You shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray” Rabbi Shraga Simmons in his article “Guard Your Eyes” states: Western
society places heavy emphasis on the visual. If it looks good, it must be good. The media bombards us with so many visual images, that we are often unaware of its effect. But be assured, it is luring us deeper and deeper into non-spiritual pursuits.
When we see these images, and fantasize how wonderful life could be "if I only had product X," we are deluding ourselves into thinking that materialism will satisfy our deepest desires. That is a violation of "Don't stray after your eyes."  
And, this of course, relates to other images that are contrary to our values.
 Every human being has a unique soul, evident nowhere more than the eyes: While fingerprints have 40 unique characteristics, the iris has 256!
Eyes convey a unique sense of warmth and emotion, the "window to the soul.'19 Looking deeply into another's eyes produces bonding, unity and connection. That's why dishonest people tend to avoid eye contact – for fear of being "exposed." And when two people agree, they see "eye to eye.
Our spiritual health depends on controlling our eyes and using them for positive purposes only. One hundred years ago, the saintly Chafetz Chaim raised awareness for the imperative to "guard your tongue."Today, with the explosion of digital images (and Virtual Reality coming soon), the time is ripe to strengthen the constant commitment to "guard your eyes."
Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade; Students finished up their Organization Unit.
Seventh Grade:  Students focused on how positive perspective- seeing the world through rose colored glasses can help one cope with adversity.
Eighth Grade: Students discussed the pressures of cheating as the stakes get more serious in high school.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Springboard For "The Talk"

“Let us begin with a story: A young girl comes to her mother and asks, ‘Where do I come from?’ her mother turns red, swallows hard, and realized the time has come for ‘the talk.’  She sits her daughter down and tries her best to explain the topic of ‘the birds and the bees.’  After the long explanation, the girl turns to her mother and says, ‘I don’t understand. My friend Shuli from down the block comes from Brooklyn. Where do I come from?’”

This is the opening paragraph to Rabbi Benjamin Yudin’s article, (based on a talk he gave in 2006), “Talking To Our Kids About The Birds And The Bees”  found in the book that  just came out, Chinuch: Contemporary And Timeless.  Yes, most of us did laugh...nervously, as we read the story above.  Rabbi Yudin begins his article discussing that most of us probably do not recall sitting down and having “the talk” with our parents. But, in today’s world, such talks are imperative. Children today have access to the internet and are learning “from a source that leaves a lasting, potentially harmful impression.”  Rabbi Yudin leaves us with a question, “How do Torah-loyal Orthodox Jews combat and preempt these pervasive influences in order to ensure to that the first exposure on this matter will be al taharas hakodesh?”

This is a question I asked myself some years ago when we began the Adolescent Life Classes in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.  As I write to the parents in the letter introducing the classes: Our students learn about their physical and emotional development from the media- television, internet and their friends.  Often, the information they gain regarding their sexuality is incorrect, glamorized or even scary.   This is an opportunity for the students to learn what they need to know from a competent and halachically appropriate source.   ***(See below the topics we cover in our curriculum).

This week, we will begin these classes- starting with the 8th grade.  By the end of  March, each middle school grade will be introduced to a developmentally appropriate and Torah perspective on the physiological and social/emotional development they are experiencing in these adolescent years.  As you will see in the e-mail you will receive before the start of these classe with your child’s grade, each grade focuses on a different aspect. Just to draw your attention to a unit we have been doing in 7th grade for years now- predating the #MeToo movement- on sexual harassment and appropriate ways to treat the opposite gender.

Rabbi Yudin expresses perfectly the beauty of having a Torah role model having a talk with students about these topics.  In 8th grade, when we have the chance to talk more about relationships, the students have the privilege of their 2nd sessions being a Q and A with halachic role models in our community- Rabbi Binayim Krohn, rabbi of the  Young Israel of Teaneck for the boys and Mrs. Shoshana Samuels, yoetzet halacha for the girls.  Our students thereby see that not only does Judaism have what to say about relationships, but is is not shameful or “dirty.”  A primary goal in having these Q and A’s is for the students to see that there are leaders in their community who are available to answer questions and with whom they can consult, even after they leave yeshiva. These people are in touch with their community, understand from where they come, and are approachable.  

Rabbi Yudin stresses in his article, as we do in our 8th grade Adolescent Life class each year, “...the contrast between the Torah’s approach to sexuality and that of our host culture.  Christian society treats sexual activity as something lurid and dirty...Judaism, on the other hand, embraces sexual intimacy and imbues it with kedusha… The Jewish attitude… is remarkably free of guilt or shame...The Torah requires moderation and modesty in one’s sexual behavior, but never guilt or shame.”   

Although we are happy to have these classes in school, Rabbi Yudin stresses, again, “Nothing substitutes for the open dialogue that parents need to have with their children on this matter. The most important is that a child sees that a parent is willing and able to talk about this topic with him. This is at least as important as the content itself…”  

            The role of the parent is to then share how Judaism has laws that preserve the sanctity of intimacy. We talk in our 7th and 8th grade classes about how laws like Tnziut, Negiah, Yichud and even Taharat HaMishpacha are good and healthy for relationships.  We even talk about some of the secular research which substantiate the beauty of these laws. However, if children find the internet’s perspective first “he will get  his indoctrination elsewhere.”  

            A few years ago, we hosted Dr. Yocheved Debow, author of Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents, for a parent workshop.  She reiterated Rabbi Yudin’s stance that it is important to speak to our children about their bodies and intimacy before they are exposed to all that is out there so that it allows “an approach based on Jewish values to take firm root in the minds of our children before they are bombarded with messages from the media.”  

            Dr. Debow’s book, which I recommend, is full of practical advice for parents. She begins her book by stressing that while the reasons behind the mitzvot can demonstrate that mitzvot have positive results emotionally, we need to be careful.  “Reliance on reasons alone do not serve our children well...Our children need to be bolstered by faith” as well.

            I want to end with one story that Dr. Debow quotes in her book told by Netanel, age 15. “We were all at Eli’s. ‘Girls can get pregnant the first time,’ Josh said. ‘No way,’ said Eli. ‘Yeah its true,’ said Josh.  When I walked home with Coby I told him I wished I knew everything like Josh.  He said he didn’t think it was true.  I decided I was going to find out.  That night I went to the study to ask my dad.  I stood there for about fifteen minutes practicing what I was going to say.  It was too hard.  I decided it wasn’t worth it- I would just take Josh’s word for it.” Some of us don’t speak about these topics because we feel we have no training.  No one spoke to us about it and we did okay. Or we might feel uncomfortable. “We are making a strong statement, in our silence, that these are things not be talked about and that we or Judaism has nothing of value to say on these topics of sexuality and relationships.”

            Both Rabbi Yudin and Dr. Debow suggest how to start the conversation with your child. Might I suggest that following up from what your children learn with us in the next few weeks is a perfect opportunity to continue the conversation. Use our classes as a springboard. See the topics below covered in each grade and ask your children what they learned.  Make it clear that you are open and available for further discussion and questions. In sixth grade, part of the unit is helping them start a conversation with you. But, like Netanel above, very few will.  These Adolescent Life classes are your chance.

*** 6th grade:  To learn about the physiological changes they are going through in puberty.  For the girls, to continue from what they learned in the 5th grade.  For the boys, to have their first introduction.  They will be further introduced to the beginnings of  the changes they go through socially and emotionally. They will discuss the importance of turning to adults with questions.

7th Grade:  To continue with the physiological changes in more detail, and focus on reproduction.  Social/emotionally, they will begin to discuss the different ways they are beginning to view the opposite gender.  What do kids do to be noticed by the other gender? What has changed?  Being sensitive to the changes that each gender is going through. There is also a discussion of sexual harassment and appropriate way to treat the opposite gender.  We will also be focusing on body image and how technology/internet affects boy- girl relationships.  

8th Grade:  To discuss with them, What is a relationship?  What is appropriate for a Jewish teen in a relationship?   How does the media affect what we think relationships should be?  How to say, “No” when you are uncomfortable.  How are girls perceived by the boys? How does the way the girls comport themselves contribute to that view? How Judaism recognizes and understands sexuality yet proscribes self-control.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade: Through the video Sneetches students talked about how we exclude others in our setting.

Seventh Grade: Students discussed the power of grit when it comes to resiliency.

Eighth Grade: Students wrote an instruction manual for their parents about what they would like their parents to know about them.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Purim And Body Image

This past week we were privileged to hear Dr. Sarah Roer present on the topic of “Raising Our Children With Healthy Body Images and Attitudes Towards Food.”  It was a pleasure having Dr. Roer back at Yavneh. Since she last spoke she has served as an adviser to us at school and to individual parents who have sought her out.  

As I mentioned when I introduced Dr. Roer, the  workshop topic is one that is important to us as parents, as we can all recall facing these issues as children or teens ourselves- or even as adults today.  Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies.  More than 80.7% of men express anxiety about their body image by focusing on perceived flaws and imperfections.  This all begins at a young age.  

This workshop was perfectly timed to occur right before Purim...No not because of all the high calorie nosh we consume, but because the message of Purim fit in perfectly with the goals of that evening.

In her article,  “Esther: Hidden Beauty,” Sara Esther Crispe speaks about that although most assume that Esther became queen due to her outward beauty, it was not exactly the case. “...the commentators note that it was miraculous that she was found to be attractive, as her physical appearance actually was quite unflattering. The Gemara in Megilla 13a  tells us that Esther was actually of a greenish complexion, but that she had a ‘thread of grace’  that was upon her.” Esther refused the perfumes or any other items that would have made her more physically attractive as she prepared for her interview with the king.  She was beautiful because her internal was beautiful.  When the internal is beautiful it will show through to the external.

In contrast, “Vashti, was a woman who garnered her attention by displaying her undressed body at royal gatherings. While her body itself was attractive, that was her only positive quality. When she was unable to flaunt her figure due to a horrific skin rash and boils, she had nothing to show for herself; in her refusal to display her body, she lost not only her position as queen, but her life as well.”  Vashti’s focus on external beauty was fleeting.  

How do we raise children who focus not only on their outsides- their external, and have healthy body images in a world where they are bombarded by messages that only our physical outsides is what is important?   ( ונהפןך הוא -the exact opposite message we want them to get!)
A protective factor for positive body image, stressed Dr. Roer,  is self- esteem. Poor self- esteem makes children vulnerable to body image issues and eating disorders. Children with low self-esteem, and those who are made to feel bad about their bodies, ultimately will have issues with food.  A child’s self- esteem not only comes from their peers, but also from how we parent them from a young age.  As parents we need to be mindful of the messages we send them daily.

 Dr. Roer continued with so many important tips regarding not assigning values to food- all food is good.  We never outlaw a type of food, but rather we eat in moderation.  She highlighted the success of authoritative parenting- which is caring, but also sets limits.  We need to be aware of our children making an association between stress or unhappiness with food. We are their role models. They need to see us eat, and even have dessert- all in moderation. Children should not hear their parents speaking badly about their own bodies.  We spoke about not having them “finish their plates,” and the topic of the chagim and eating was brought up in a question. Some other questions Dr. Roer targeted were: What if my child is always hungry?  What if she wants a night snack? What if my child’s doctor thinks that he/she  should go on a diet?  Dr. Roer stressed the importance of never making a child feel that he/she cannot eat something.  

Dr. Roer also mentioned the impact of the media on our children’s body images today.  Dr. Roer herself was involved with her mentor in the Israeli Photoshop Law, (which we talk about with our students in their body image sessions), which stipulated that fashion and commercial models should have a body-mass index of at least 18.5, and that computer-generated changes to make models appear thinner be noted along with the images.

Another area related to social media’s impact on body image has also become concerning to me.  (We did not, however, have the time to discuss this topic at our workshop). Rachel Simmons, the author of the famous Odd Girl Out,  discusses in her Time Magazine article “How Social Media Has Become A Toxic Mirror,” “Earlier this year, psychologists found robust cross-cultural evidence linking social media use to body image concerns, dieting, body surveillance, a drive for thinness and self-objectification in adolescents.”

We discuss this issue with our students in our body image classes. In fact, one article we read with them “Tell Me What You See Even If It Hurts Me- ‘Am I Pretty’ Videos- Posed To The Internet Raise Questions” speaks of teens who post videos of themselves to Youtube and actually ask people to respond whether they think the girl posting is pretty or ugly.  Girls often say, “Be honest.  I can take it.”  But it is not true. The only thing they learn from that experience is how cruel others can be.

“That nearly all the people in these videos seem to fall from 13 to 15 years old is not a coincidence, psychologists say. As young teenagers enter middle school, they start to leave behind the cocoon of family and childhood friends and reassess themselves by society’s standards. It’s what the psychologist Erik Erikson called the Identity Versus Confusion phase, when children struggle to understand how their emerging selves might fit into the larger picture. YouTube provides a modern resource for teenagers grappling with a timeless problem.”
As Common Sense Media writes in their article,  (which we again read with our students),  that social media is wreaking havoc on self- image.  Here are some of the statistics found in their research study:  35 percent are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos.  27 percent feel stressed about how they look in posted photos. 22 percent felt bad about themselves if their photos were ignored.

Simmons points out that with free apps teens can alter their bodies in these photos, putting upon them tremendous pressure to be more beautiful.
What can we as parents do to help them in this era of social media?
  1. We need to talk to them about the pictures they are posting.  
  2. Ask them how they feel about the feedback of others? Why are they seeking the approval of others?
  3. As Dr. Roer mentioned, from a young age we need to focus on healthy bodies, not what it looks like.  We also need to be careful about criticizing our own bodies in front of them.
  4. Point out to them role models who  “challenge stereotypes about size and beauty and who are comfortable in their own skins.”
  5. Help them post positive comments that support their friends for who they are and not what they look like.
  6. Discuss being a critical media consumer.  Point out the unrealistic body ideals in the media.
  7. Don’t forget to tell them you love them- every bit about them.  

Each one of our children is Esther HaMalka, (our boys as well!). As it says in Esther 2:9,
וַתִּיטַ֨ב הַנַּֽעֲרָ֣ה בְעֵינָיו֘ וַתִּשָּׂ֣א חֶ֣סֶד לְפָנָיו֒ “And the maiden pleased him, and she won his favor.”
 Why does it need to say twice that she was attractive in the eyes of Achashveirosh? (And, all this even before she is offered the ointments and items to make herself more beautiful).   Esther Rabba 6:9 states, The Rabbis taught: Esther found favor in all that saw her, both in the upper world and in the lower world. As it says: (Proverbs 3) "And you will find favor and approbation in the eyes of God and man."  The Torah Temima comments that she was loved by angels and man. Angels do not care about appearances. They care about character.  It was her beautiful character that made her beautiful.  
The message of Esther is to help our little angels realize how beautiful they are on the inside.  Dr. Roer’s presentation reinvigorated us to rededicate ourselves to helping our children focus on what really counts.

Advisory Update
Sixth Grade- Students focused on how to organize one’s backpack, locker and home workspace.
Seventh Grade;  Students discovered the power of upbeat thinking.

Eighth Grade;  Students began a unit on the changing parent- child relationship in adolescence.