As we continue to grapple with the fallout and devastation wrought by recent revelations of abuse, and the seemingly conflicting responses as to the main lesson to be learned from the entire episode, we can all agree that creating an environment that increases our children’s safety is a paramount obligation on all of us.
Step one is helping them cope with the news and information or misinformation that may be reaching them. A fair number of our students have been exposed to rumors, adult discussion, conversation with friends and the media. If you think your child falls into that category, you should encourage your child to express what he or she has heard, to determine if and how it might have impacted them. There is no correct answer to their expression of concerns. Our job is to validate whatever the child is feeling. Get across the message that you hear them and do not judge, minimize or berate them for their reaction. By remaining calm and non-judgmental you will encourage your child to express more of what they are feeling and thinking.
…we can all agree that creating an environment that increases our children’s safety is a paramount obligation on all of us. You can also help by sharing with your child that what happened is shocking to you as well. A feeling of betrayal is normal and confusing. Be wary of accepting theories and editorials. Parents’ identifying with a particular point of view regarding the controversial elements of what happened and how it was handled, does not serve any constructive purpose for children.
If your child is old enough to understand the allegations, you should state that the behaviors are wrong and teach your child and empower them to speak up if they or someone they know is being mistreated in any way. Younger children can be told that the author was a man who was not able anymore to set good examples for children and seemed to not be mentally well.
Another element to be aware of is that exposure to suicide can be frightening and traumatizing, especially to young children. When students and school age children are exposed to suicide, the impact can be intense and alarming. Very young children should not be given the details, and it is wise to protect them from the word “suicide”, “shot himself to death”, etc., and other factual and vivid descriptions. You can share with older children (ages 8-9 and above) “he was very ill with a rare sickness and the pain was so strong that he was not able to think clearly” or something similar, to help the child understand that this was a very unusual condition and that the death came because the person was unable to control their pain and ask for help.
By remaining calm and non-judgmental you will encourage your child to express more of what they are feeling and thinking. Moving beyond the current situation, we need to proactively and sensitively teach our children ways to avoid becoming victims of those who wish to take advantage of them for their own inappropriate purposes. Lessons in personal safety include helping a child be aware that certain parts of the body are private and to learn to say “NO” when someone asks you or pushes you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Teach your child to only go places with parents’ permission and to ask first before any change of plans.
Children naturally feel guilty for their involvement in inappropriate behavior, usually not understanding that what was done to them was not their fault. This causes them to remain silent and not share, perhaps allowing their victimization to remain ongoing for extended periods of time, R’L. With great sensitivity, understanding and awareness, parents can create a non-judgmental atmosphere and relationship that will encourage children to be open and to share their fears and concerns. When a child knows that what he shares will be listened to and calmly empathized with in a supportive, loving manner, he will be more forthcoming. Creating such an open, welcoming environment is within every parent’s reach.
…we will emerge from the current feelings of despair and hopelessness to a bright future … Looking at the broader needs of our children, new norms need to be strengthened. Schools, shuls, parks and other gathering places need to be visually open and not provide hiding spaces. Cameras need to be utilized, and tutoring, therapeutic and other one-on-one adult-child encounters need to be in places that are easily accessible to others. The halachos of Yichud are a good place to start. Chazal understood that secluded spaces and places can bring out inappropriate behaviors, no matter how well-meaning and high-minded people may be.
The points mentioned above are merely some highlights of dealing with a very complex issue. Ongoing awareness of and thinking about the potential dangers to our children are key to avoiding tragedies in the future. Parents are referred to two excellent children’s books about safety:
Talking About Personal Privacy by Bracha Goetz. Feldheim Publishers
Let’s Stay Safe (Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz) Artscroll Publications
A key to successfully promoting a protective environment for our children is the partnership between school and home. With a trusting, supportive relationship, parents and teachers can partner to strengthen and empower the children to self-confidently navigate any unwanted encounters in a way that keeps them safe and maintains their feelings of self-worth and value.
With Tefillos, Siyata D’Shmaya (Heavenly help) and our own efforts, we will emerge from the current feelings of despair and hopelessness to a bright future where children can grow up protected from harmful people and truly flourish and reach their potential.
May Hashem help us in our ongoing efforts to create the brightest possible future for all of our precious children.
Best wishes for a wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann
(With grateful acknowledgement to Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, and Dr. Dovid Fox of Project Chai, for some of the above ideas.)