[By Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R, written for Guard Your Eyes dot org – an organization helping the Jewish people with prevention and treatment of Internet struggles, and sumitted to TLS by GYE] Many children, at some point, will use the Internet for illicit purposes. This is just a normal part of childhood mischief, as was once looking at dirty magazines. Of course, not every child did such things, but many have done so and turned out quite normal. Children are curious and naturally will have difficulty reigning in their desires, which are intensely felt during adolescence. The problem is that what was once relatively harmless experimentation is now much more dangerous because of the potential dangers and the degree of exposure that the Internet poses. It may not be desirable, but it still is normal for children at some point to experiment with alcohol. Parents do not usually lock up the liquor cabinet in anticipation of this. Yet, at the same time, we wouldn’t want our children experimenting with Heroin. That is the hazard of the Internet – normal mischief can quickly lead to abnormal and dangerous over exposure.
Some families are more permissive and some families less so, and it is not the place of this article to dictate values. Rather, this article will focus on what parents can do to protect children from influences and temptations that they deem harmful, although those definitions may vary from family to family. Children today access the Internet at the library, on their phones, on their friends’ phones, on portable games and almost every imaginable device. The same is true in regard to movies and music that were once confined to tapes or CD’s and now are easily downloaded and uploaded onto stick drives and tiny players. Don’t even THINK that it is possible to keep you child from these influences IF he or she desires them. The technical savvy and ingenuity of even small children surpasses most of us adults. We are hopelessly clueless about technology that is as natural as air and water to our children.
Therefore, this article begins with the basic assumption that your child uses or can use the Internet – even if you don’t think he or she will. It also takes for granted that your home has appropriate and suitable safeguards and Internet filters if you allow the Internet, and you have family rules and policies around usage. This article will not rehash the obvious. Assuming these basic protective elements are in place, there still remain many questions, such as:
- How do we educate our children to deal with these challenges, temptations and nisyonos which they will inevitably encounter at some point, despite our best efforts to protect them?
- What areas of parenting are important for us to improve in order to help our children in these areas?
- How do we identify warning signs that a child has fallen into viewing inappropriate materials?
- What do we do if we discover a child was looking at inappropriate materials?
- How do we talk to our children about shmiras eynaim and kedushas habris without overexposing them prematurely?
Helping Children Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Many of these questions can be addressed via adopting a particular approach. This approach starts with a recognition that parenting tactics built primarily on control and fear of punishment which may have worked well in the past, are not as effective today. Many children today have more freedom and access to anything than any other generation ever dreamed of, and as we are in ikvesa d’meshicah we know that chutzpah yasgey (brazen behavior is ever increasing, see Sotah 49b.) Therefore, an important parenting strategy is to develop in each of our children the capacity for critical thinking, good judgment, self-monitoring, and the ability to resist temptation and peer pressure. Just as vaccine inoculates a person from an illness by exposing the body to a weakened form of the disease for it to develop antibodies, so too we must inoculate our children to these dangers by building their defenses and decision making skills.
Children develop these character skills when they are given opportunities to make choices and learn from their mistakes at levels that are appropriate for them. This is no different than teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. You can’t keep holding the bicycle or use training wheels forever or he will never learn, but you also can’t leave him alone and let him feel overwhelmed by letting him fall all the time. Instead, a parent needs to provide just the right amount of holding and just the right amount of letting go. Because in today’s times, our children will end up having many nisyonos that we won’t even be aware of, we will need to help develop these skills as much as possible.
The process of helping our children develop self-knowledge and good judgment begins very early. Instead of just making rules and demanding compliance, parents should selectively choose areas that a child can articulate and discuss his beliefs and values. Even young children have opinions if they are treated with respect and encouraged to share them. Keep in mind, asking your child his opinion is not ceding authority to him. As a parent, you can always assert your authority. However, it is helpful to give your child a chance to think and discuss what his beliefs and values are, so you can develop in him those necessary decision making skills that children need now more than ever before. This process of listening is what the famous psychologist Haim Ginott referred to as giving children a voice but not a vote. Parents still can have plenty of control, but the child should feel that his opinion is heard. Let’s consider a number of examples:
Imagine your child comes home with a poor grade on a test. Assuming there are no bigger problems such as learning disabilities or difficulties with a teacher or a classmate, you could discipline the child by cutting back a privilege, supervising his studying more etc. Such an approach may work just fine, however there also is an opportunity for the child to develop his own ability to assess and critique his performance and formulate his own plan to correct it. You can ask what he thinks about the particular grade. You can ask him in general what are his goals, and how he would like to budget his time to achieve them. Additionally, not every child wants to get a “A”, and it may not even be important for every child to excel in school. Other things in life count that do not have to do with grades, such as middos, quality of friendships etc. It is worthwhile to ask your child what is important to him and what his goals are. If they sound reasonable, support them. If your child is happy with getting a lesser grade, but it is an acceptable grade, find out where he wants to excel and encourage him to pursue that. That builds a child’s own abilities instead of just making him compliant.
Many parents have concerns about the kind of friends a child chooses. As children enter adolescence, they attach themselves to various peer groups as way of becoming more independent from family. This is a normal part of development. Instead of dictating your child’s choice of friends, ask your child what he thinks makes a good friend or a bad friend. Ask him if he ever had a friend who he thought was a bad influence on him and what he did about it.
Questions and discussions like these are easier to have before you are in a situation where decisions are already being made and you have to step in and intervene. Each of these discussions help a child build in himself the ability to know his own values and assess his own behavior.
Specific Points About Shmiras Enayim
There is a saying, that if you want your child to do something, the best way is to make sure to get upset about it and forbid it. It is important to treat shmiras enayim and other aspects of Torah modesty in a calm fashion without becoming overly intense or ashamed. Discussions about how the Torah expects us to handle desires should begin before a child enters adolescence, so that when the desires begin to intensify, it will not overwhelm him. While it is up to every parent to decide how much and when to discuss desires in general, it is a Torah obligation to teach our children about what their responsibilities are and what they must watch out for. We can’t expect children to know this without being taught. Unfortunately, when children are not taught about these things, they can become prey to those who take advantage of them.
No matter how much we shelter our children, the body matures. There is a famous humorous story of chassidic young man that illustrates this point. The man had sheltered his son from seeing girls his whole life. One day, in his teens, the boy saw some girls on the other side of the street and asked his father, “Totty, what are those?” Wanting to keep his son as innocent as possible the father answered, “They aren’t really much of anything – just tchatchkes.” The boy replied, “I like those tchatchkes. I want one!”
For parents who feel their child should not be taught about these issues at such a young age, the discussion above can be conducted without being explicit. As the reader can see, it is a discussion about Torah requirements. Still, other parents may want to tell their children more about the facts of life, and that can be worked into the conversation as well.
These discussions are not one time events. Rather, they should happen every few months as the opportunity arises. Often times, various topics in Torah learning ranging from the parsha to a particular Gemara that the child is learning can be a natural segue way into this discussion.
If a child’s behavior changes suddenly such as he becomes more secretive, irritable, or has a significant decline in grades, this may be a sign that something is wrong. It is important to ask your child if he is having a problem or challenge that is affecting his behavior. You may want to ask if it is about something that he finds difficult or embarrassing to talk about and reassure him that you will be accepting and supportive. This may be a time to be more explicit about the issues so you can develop a common vocabulary to troubleshoot any suspected problems. Is your child being exposed to something harmful? Is he part of a bad chevrah? Is someone taking advantage of him? He may not feel comfortable talking about these things if he does not feel accepted by you and safe. Part of making him feel safe is to discuss some of the common challenges people experience so he feels normal and knows that you are not going to be shocked by what he reveals.
Many of these difficulties remain a normal part of growing up, and parents can be very helpful by offering love, support and guidance without getting overly tense, anxious or punitive. While the Internet definitely poses new challenges in the degree of exposure, human beings have not changed and boys will be boys. Keeping a good relationship with your child is the key to helping him weather the storms of adolescence. A good relationship is built on respect, careful empathic listening, and support. While discipline is sometimes necessary, it works much better when there is a strong relationship. And often when there is a strong relationship, you can help your child develop his own skills to discipline himself which at times in his life, will be the only protection he has.