Each year, like so many of you, I eagerly look forward to my summer vacation. Used properly, a vacation is not only an opportunity to take a break from the rigors of work, but it provides tremendous growth opportunities. In fact, how we use our vacation and what we do in our down time not only reveals much about us and our priorities, it sends a loud message to our children as well.
Every day in Shema we recite “ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם,” teach your children and speak about Torah, “בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך,” when you are sitting at home and when you are traveling on the way. We certainly teach our children through the words we say and the messages we articulate. But even more so, we teach them through our actions and behaviors בשבתך בביתך, what we do when we are at home, and בלכתך בדרך, when we are out of our homes, traveling on the road, away on vacation.
When we are on vacation from our job, do our children perceive we are on vacation from our Judaism, or do they see us use that time off from work to do what we claim we care about but “never have enough time for,” to nurture and nourish our souls? Do we find the time to attend minyan if we normally can’t, to stay until the end if we normally run out, to take our time if we are normally in a rush? Do we set goals to finish a book or catch up on Torah texts or online classes only to instead catch up on popular shows and finish “must see” Netflix series? Do we truly disconnect to be fully present with those that we love in meaningful, memorable ways, or do we remain absent present, still distracted, if not by work responsibilities, by other things competing for our attention?
The summer is not only a time for us adults to rejuvenate, revitalize and refresh. Children often experience incredible growth spurts over the summer, sometimes to the point the clothing they wore at the end of one school year no longer fits by the beginning of the next. Similarly, the summer break represents an amazing, often neglected opportunity for children to grow emotionally and spiritually as well. I would humbly submit to you that the two months between school years is as important and significant in molding and shaping a child as the ten months they attend school.
For ten months a year, children that attend Yeshiva Day School are well-versed and familiar with the weekly parsha. Do we make sure that they study the parshiyos that fall between June and August as well? For ten months a year, our children begin each day by davening to Hashem. Do we make sure that they realize that davening is part of a Jew’s daily routine, whether they are in school, working, or on vacation?
For ten months of the year, many children wear uniforms or follow dress codes that preserve the values of dignity and modesty. Are those values reinforced over the summer or do children learn that they are just rules for school, not for life? Our children have chessed and community service requirements for school, are they encouraged to find chessed and service opportunities when not in school, too?
The summer provides tremendous growth opportunities for our children, but sadly, it also presents risks and threats for their safety if we are not careful and if they are not well informed.
With our children off from school, many of them heading off to camp and others having more leisure time roaming the neighborhood, there is no better time to rededicate ourselves to best practices for safety for our family and community in general. Review stranger danger. Have proper and working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in appropriate locations. Lock the doors to your car and home, no matter how safe you feel. Make sure your pool fence is sturdy and closed. Don’t let children swim unsupervised or alone, teach children to use sunscreen, and make sure they always wear helmets when riding bikes or scooters. Be vigilant in reviewing with your children where they are going, what they are doing, who is driving them, who else will be there, what they are seeing, etc.
While the world is generally a safe place and the people our children are exposed to are almost always appropriate and safe, sadly the threat of abuse is real. Research has consistently shown that the most important and effective tool to protect our children is education. As loving and trusted parents, we have the capacity to safeguard our children, but it means having a difficult and uncomfortable conversation.
My friend Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a respected voice on the topic of child safety education, identifies four points to communicate to our children in order to empower them to protect themselves and to transform them into difficult targets for predators:
No secrets from parents – In a non-anxious, calm conversation we must remind our children that we love them beyond words and that they can feel confident confiding in us about absolutely anything. We must make them recognize that we take them seriously, we will honor their concerns and fears, and we will always do everything in our power to serve their best interests.
Your body belongs to you – It is crucial for children to understand the concept of personal space and that our bodies belong to us, and us alone. Our private parts are ours and absolutely nobody, not a friend, family member, or person in any position of authority, can have access to them.
Good touch/bad touch – Not every touch is bad and qualifies as abuse. However, there is touch that is categorically wrong and should set off an alarm for our children. They must understand the difference so that they can be aware and respond appropriately.
No one should make you feel uncomfortable – Lastly, we must communicate to our children that no one should make them feel uncomfortable. If they do, they have a right to walk away and tell someone they trust.
Too many parents are avoiding this talk because they think they will introduce their children to a topic that will make them fear adults and worry excessively. However, the experts explain that rather than fear adults, children will feel safer knowing they can trust their parents and they will feel empowered to protect themselves going forward.
While it is never comfortable to broach this subject, good opportunities for bringing it up can be bath times for young children, clothes shopping for older children, or at the time of a doctor’s appointment. Should God forbid an issue arise, the best way to respond to our children is to tell them that we believe them and that we will react swiftly and appropriately.
Halacha (Jewish law) is clear that safety concerns must be reported to the appropriate authorities and all mandated reporting laws must be observed. Remaining silent, covering up, or excusing inexcusable behavior leaves other children vulnerable to abuse and trauma that will haunt them their entire lives and do what can be irreparable damage.
May we all have a safe and healthy summer and may we experience a great spiritual growth spurt.