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I was out walking one evening about eight years ago when our son Shlomie, then sixteen years old (now married, living and learning in Lakewood N.J. He graciously and cheerfully granted me permission to include his involvement in these lines) called me on my cell phone. He said hello and then got right to the point. He asked me if I had heard the news. “What news?” I asked.
“Tatty,” he blurted out, “[New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani committed adultery!!” – using Hebrew/Yiddish slang for violating one’s marriage vows.
“And…? I said/asked, not knowing what he wanted from me or how to respond.
“How could he do this, Ta?” “I know [President Bill] Clinton did things like this, but Giuliani?... He seems like such an honest, decent man?” Shlomie asked, with confusion and hurt in his voice.
After a few moments of silence, I told him that this is really not a phone conversation, and invited him to discuss this with me in person when he arrived home from Yeshiva later that evening.
That unforgettable ‘Kodak Moment’ came to mind this week as the tawdry details of Governor Elliot Spitzer’s stunning collapse unfolded in all venues of the media. More than a few people contacted me asking how they ought to respond to their teenager’s questions/comments about this matter, which made me decide to write and post this column on my website.
Well; Shlomie and I went for a walk later that evening after he returned from Yeshiva and I allowed him to express his disappointment with Rudy Giuliani and his bewilderment at how people do these kinds of things. When he wound down, I told him that everything that happens in our lives contains lessons to be learned, and this was no exception.
I told him that my take-away was that human frailty is such that the only way to prevent one from losing one’s moral compass in a moment of weakness was to establish boundaries. I then gave him several concrete examples of boundaries that I set in my personal life. I asked him, “Shlomie; think back over the years that you grew up in our home. Did you ever see an unaccompanied woman come to our home to meet with me [and seek my advice] after dark or when there weren’t lots of people walking around our home?” and “Why do you think that the door to my study is almost completely made of glass?”
I then explained to him that I decided long ago to set these boundaries – and others – in order to lessen the likelihood of being placed in a precarious position. We discussed the dictum of our chazal (sages) of “Ain apitropis l’arayos,” loosely translated to mean that no one can assume that he/she is immune to temptation, and that the Torah, and our Sages in their wisdom established boundaries for us such as yichud (the prohibition against secluding oneself with a member of the opposite gender) in order to help us live within the Torah’s mandates.
I also spoke to him about the deep commitment and love that his mother and I share to each other and to our children and how disruptive dishonesty can be to relationships. We talked about how trust is built and expanded over a period of time with loved ones and how important it is to always be truthful with the people we care about. (Two quotes I find meaningful are, “The first lie is always the hardest.” And, “There is no such thing as a single lie,” meaning that when one is not truthful, he/she will inevitably need to lie many more times to ‘cover’ for the original one.”)
In short; my advice to parents is:
Don’t get flustered when/if your child raises this topic. Take it as a supreme compliment that he/she is comfortable discussing these matters with you. Keep in mind that you cannot guide your children if they don’t come to you for advice.
Don’t make sweeping generalizations, “Frum people don’t do these things,” or “only gentiles or non-frum people do.” That might carry the day now, but sadly, no community is without its bad apples. Your message to your child will be demolished and your credibility diminished when he/she discovers that we are not completely immune to poor and immoral behavior, and that there are many morally committed people outside our community.
Do talk about our community’s family values, commitment to our marriages, low divorce rate, and the Torah’s eternal lessons to help us maintain our spiritual and moral compass in the most trying of circumstances.
Do talk about trust. It is an invaluable lesson for your teen to learn – now in his (her) relationship with you and later in life when he establishes his own family.
Do listen. The real discussions take place when you stop lecturing and start listening. So create the environment where your child is comfortable asking you anything. Always keep in mind that a repressed question is an unaddressed – and unresolved – one.
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