When I was potty training my older son, I taught him to wash his hands with soap and water every time he was in the bathroom. And he did. But, he’d come out with hands dripping every time. Why? Because I had not taught him something that I thought was so obvious, something that I didn’t realize needed to be taught. I didn’t teach him that drying hands was part of the washing hands process. It took a year of my reminding him again and again to “wash and dry” his hands until it was ingrained in him as part of the bathroom routine.
In the wake of the tragic and disturbing Stanford rape case, I was reminded of that story. Because once again, I am in disbelief that something I think is so obvious—do not rape women, drunk and unconscious women can not give consent, do not have sex with women who are passed out no matter the circumstance (take your pick, all of the above)—actually needs to be taught. Over and over again.
I am the mother of two young boys. They are years from my having to worry about their sexual activity. At this point, as much as they hate to see my husband and I fight in front of them, they are even more upset (grossed out?) when we kiss in front of them. But that doesn’t matter. Because as a mom, my #1 job is to raise two mensches. Two people who will treat themselves and their friends, family, co-workers and even strangers with respect. Who do the right thing even when they can get away with doing the wrong thing.
And that job started the moment they were born. The horrific incident in Stanford reminds me that I cannot assume my sons will just inherit the values that my husband and I live by and are trying to instill in them. We cannot assume that even as they get older, my sons will be able to rely on their gut instincts or their natural intuitions to discern right from wrong.
No. My husband and I need to teach our boys these values implicitly and explicitly. We need to teach them by example in our actions and in our words. Not once. Not twice. But over and over again.
So, we send the kids to a Jewish day school whose core values reflect our own. We chose a sleep away camp whose core philosophy is that “the most important thing is to be a good person by helping others and respecting people for who they are.” We donate our used clothes to kids in need and cook meals for friends who are sick or sitting shiva. We teach them to cheer on their teammates at the Little League game, but also to not boo when the opposing team scores a run or makes a great play. We don’t let them get away with cheating, whether at school or during a game of Monopoly.
And even though they are young, in very non-sexual contexts already we can teach that no means no and stop means stop. My boys love to wrestle each other on the couch. But if one of them says, “stop” or “I’m hurt,” we teach them that the game is over and to get up right away. Same as when they are playing around with their friends. We may joke about the proverb that it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, but we are serious about trying to teach them the difference between friendly roughhousing and horseplay, and when enough is enough.
Instilling values like honesty, respect, kindness, generosity is not always easy, particularly because my husband and I have dry, sarcastic senses of humor and say inappropriate comments a little too often in front of our sons who don’t always know that we are joking. We know we want to teach the right values and we know that we are not perfect at our attempts to do so. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. But we keep at it. Again and again. Because these are important lessons for our kids to know. And the only thing that is obvious to me now is that we cannot assume that our kids will grow up to be the good, kind, respectful people we want them to be without our teaching them how.