I’m honored to be an invited speaker at the Second World Congress
on the Family, and wish specifically to thank Dr. Alan Carlson and his staff at
the Howard Center for Family and Religion. Having contributed articles to its
publications over the past decade, I’ve found the Center to be an important
source of fresh thinking on the crucial topic of strengthening family life. In
bringing social science experts together from around the world to help families
in a time of tremendous change, I’m grateful to offer my own
perspective—-derived from both my activity as a practicing child psychologist
and from my Jewish religious tradition. For the past twenty years, these twin
pillars have solidly upheld all my professional work.
In being asked to address the topic of children’s needs--and how
families can better meet those today, I must first emphasize that my area of
interest is children’s higher needs: that is, encompassing their ethical,
moral, and spiritual development. Why this differentiation?
Simply, because one field of experts at this Congress and
elsewhere is admirably striving to aid the physical and health needs of
youngsters around the globe; in my own United States, and in many other
nations, impoverished children are still lacking adequate nutrition and health
care--and are often needlessly exposed to known environmental toxins, such as
lead and mercury, that cause neurological afflictions including brain damage. Certainly,
the goal of safeguarding youngsters’ nutritional and physical needs will occupy
many caring people for the foreseeable future.
A second field of experts at this Congress and elsewhere is
devoted to eradicating illiteracy, and ensuring that all boys and girls have
access to education and the development of their full cognitive capabilities.
Unfortunately, the full attainment of this goal seems a long way off too.
Everyone at this Congress--speakers, organizers, and participants--could focus
for years on these two pressing aspects of children’s needs--health and
cognitive--and be wonderfully doing “God’s work” on earth.
But my focus on what I call youngsters’ “higher needs” is rather
different from those domains--and especially in the context of this
Congress—internationally concerned with invigorating families today, I’d like
to offer six key principles. As I’ve alluded, these flow from my twenty years
of experience as a child psychologist and from my lifetime of involvement in
Judaism. They specifically reflect my Jewish education and upbringing while
growing up in New York City, as well as my later psychological training at
Cornell University and the University of Michigan.
Certainly, I don’t intend these principles as exhaustive or all-inclusive,
and I’m sure, we at the Congress could spend hours productively mentioning
additional, worthy notions. But, I trust these will provide a framework for
looking at children meaningfully, and thereby actualizing our plans,
objectives, policies, and interventions more fruitfully.
Six Principles for Meeting Children’s Higher Needs
1) All children are born with
an innate spirituality; that is, spirituality is a “core” feature of human
personality from the moment of conception through one’s last breath. This
spirituality is our birthright, and it’s what makes human life sacred and
inviolate. This spiritual core is manifested in every child, regardless of his
or her IQ, academic achievement, or physical prowess.
Parents and other adult family members including aunts, uncles, and grandparents have a responsibility to safeguard and nurture their children’s spirituality, and
from my perspective, this is essentially possible only by active
participation in a religious tradition. In this context, I’m referring
specifically here to the monotheistic paths of Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam, with which I’m most familiar. It’s no coincidence that all three
religions view the family as a meeting place for the divine in our lives, and
regard procreation and child-rearing as sacred duties for adults.
Certainly, I believe that people without religious faith or
activity can be helpful parents or educators. But to me, such individuals are
the exception and definitely not the rule--for without a religious view, they
can’t help but ignore or deny altogether the reality of children’s higher
needs. For instance, the concept of the sanctity of human life can exist only
within a religious viewpoint; otherwise, ethics inevitably becomes reduced to
mere utilitarianism. In an increasingly secular nation like the United States,
this is precisely the dilemma faced by family advocates; unless the debate is
framed at the outset in spiritual terms, all questions about families,
children, and life-purpose become reduced to moral relativism.
For this reason, my first
principle can be broadened to say that family life must be explicitly affirmed
by a spiritual outlook, or all our efforts at this Congress and similar
ventures are doomed to failure. If child-rearing is understood and presented as
nothing more than just another secular activity like foreign travel, computer
programming, reading or tennis, then logically enough, it simply becomes just
another “lifestyle choice” among many others competing for adult time, energy,
commitment, and financial cost—-all against the pervasive backdrop of today’s
global consumer marketplace.
To make this assertion certainly isn’t intended to push away
family advocates who lack a faith tradition; rather, it’s to emphasize that we
must be clear and welcoming to all about our position viz a viz familial theory
2) Every child has a unique spiritual essence that can best be
honored and developed in the family. It’s basic to Jewish belief that each
person is here on earth for a particular, God-given mission—-known as tikun in
Hebrew. In the inspiring words of the founder of the late 18th
century Jewish charismatic movement known as Hasidism, “Every person in life
has a task or mission that belongs to no other.”
As parents, relatives, and educators, we know,
of course, that all children are different. Even within the same family,
siblings typically show markedly different emotional, physical, cognitive, and
social characteristics. This is an observation so obvious as to constitute a
truism. My point, however, goes deeper than psychological observation, for I’m
suggesting that parents and other adult family members have a spiritual mandate
to foster the uniqueness of each child, each new baby born into the world.
When we truly see each child as a new creation
and a new messenger from God—-as the Hasidic founders inspiringly advised--our
parenting is almost inevitably elevated to a higher moral plane. We become less
caught up in day-to-day trivialities, and better see the “big picture” in each
child’s development into a fully-functioning adult.
It’s important to note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all
view each child as possessing certain specific spiritual gifts. As parents, relatives, and educators, the more
sensitive we are to these gifts, the more effective our child-rearing becomes.
For instance, it’s become unmistakable to me as a practicing psychologist that
boys and girls as early as preschool age are capable of manifesting such
important character traits as kindness, compassion, comfort, cooperation,
dutifulness, concern for “fairness” or justice, and even courage and
In our consumerist society, we constantly under-estimate
children’s moral, ethical, and spiritual capabilities. Why? Simply because
they're not capable of buying very much--in marketing parlance, their purchase-power
is highly limited. But in failing to give youngsters adequate and rightful
credit for their spirituality, we do them—-and ourselves--a tremendous
disservice. It’s clearly within the day-to-day life of the family--where
ideally members are bonded by spiritual and not marketplace values--that
children can best develop their higher qualities.
3) Religion provides the necessary basis for
enabling families to nurture children’s higher needs. Although philosophers
through the ages have tried instilling in youngsters fine moral, ethical, and
even transcendental values without rooting these in religion, such efforts have
invariably proven dismal failures. The field of history is littered with
utopian-educational schemes whose well-meaning founders unsuccessfully tried to
overturn or circumvent religious faith as the basis for true character
development. Further, I see no likelihood on the current horizon for any
secular movement--no matter how benign or well-intentioned--to fulfill these
higher needs of children. That is, there’s no convincing evidence that a
secular outlook on family life can ensure children’s higher needs, and I
encourage all here at the Congress to concur with my analysis.
Such a conclusion, of course, is hardly cause for dismay, for the
world’s great religious traditions offer a marvelous treasure house of wisdom
about the development of our inner life from childhood onward; it seems far
more useful and productive to draw intensively from these traditions than to
try fashioning new ones from whole cloth. I strongly doubt that such an
approach will succeed, or is even worth our important time today.
For example, speaking for my own tradition of Judaism, I can share
with you that the big problem is not that its centuries of moral, ethical, and
spiritual wisdom are irrelevant to youngsters in our new era of the
Internet--but that so few Jewish parents possess the background anymore to draw
effectively on this tradition for guidance and insight in raising children.
4) Regardless of their specific theological differences, Judaism,
Christianity and Islam share a striking commonality of child-rearing values—-a
commonality increasingly crucial for viable family life as we move into the
next Millennium. By their very nature, these traditions are implicitly united
in affirming an array of key values. For in contrast to those with a religious
outlook-—who view each child as a unique, spiritual being, endowed with intrinsic
dignity and higher gifts--secularists ultimately see children as consumers,
producers, or mere economic units. I could spend hours expanding on this point,
but I’m sure that we all know the basic issues.
In this sense, I’m
certainly not alone in this Congress in affirming that practicing Jews,
Christians, and Muslims as parents ultimately have more in common with another
than they do with secularists.
This bold statement would have seemed absurd, even unthinkable,
perhaps only a generation ago. To many in the world today, it still
undoubtedly—-and unfortunately--rings strangely. But, as the Howard Center in
its leadership has been asserting, unbridled secularism poses among the
greatest dangers to families today. Therefore, all those with a faith-based
outlook will increasingly need to find common ground for family defense and
well-being. Certainly, this Congress marks an important milestone in this
5) Children’s higher needs are more likely to be met when families
participate together in religious activity.
Too often in today’s society, children at an increasingly young
age are encouraged to be “independent”-—that is, to resist and reject their
parents’ advice. This encouragement is now happening pervasively, as skillful
marketers through television, popular music and movies, and increasingly the
Internet, are seeking to transform children into consumers with artificially-created desires for purchasable products and
If my statement seems exaggerated, be assured: it’s not and this
subject is no laughing matter. Social science studies in the past year reveal
that whereas a generation ago, United States youngsters by age thirteen or
fourteen began showing strong susceptibility to the messages of the marketing and
media culture to be “cool, fashionable, and hip.” it’s now typically happening
with children by age nine and even eight. At this moment in thousands of homes
across the United States and elsewhere, such youngsters are demanding an array
of toys, games, clothes, and fashion accessories. And I haven’t even mentioned
the exponentially growing lure of the Internet as a transmitter of unwholesome
There’s no wrong per se with a child asking for a particular
movie-based toy, hat, or fashion accessory. But a child, no less than an adult,
cannot hold two sets of essentially contradictory values at the same time.
Because the great religions are grounded in a very different set
of values—-with an over-riding message stressing compassion and responsibility,
not consumerism and hedonism--children who participate with their parents in
worship, ritual, and sacred learning are absorbing a very different message
about what life is all about. The key is for youngsters actually to see their
parents as collaborators in religious discovery, not as commanders or bosses.
For example, when my family attends synagogue services together, our two sons
see my wife and I standing right next to them, reading from the same
prayer books, chanting the same prayers, and listening to the same rabbinic
sermon drawn from the Hebrew Bible or oral tradition.
Our sons are thereby implicitly absorbing a powerful message, and
a much-needed antidote to the “Buying makes you happy, owning makes you
important” ideology of the secular, consumerist culture today. In broadest terms, our
youngsters can’t justifiably accuse us of hypocrisy if we as parents are
participating in the same religious activity, such as a Sabbath evening,
Chanukah, or Passover service. There’s also a special joy that both children
and parents experience--as I’m sure many in the Congress here know well—-when
we participate as a family in religious ritual, study, or worship service.
6) Finally, the particular method or methods we adopt in the home
are invariably subordinate to the meta-goal of meeting children’s higher needs.
As parents, relatives, and educators, we’re faced today with a seeming plethora
of diverse techniques for fostering children’s moral, ethical, and spiritual
development. Some claim to be completely secular, some claim to be totally
faith-based, and others apparently offer a blend of approaches. Having
consulted to many Jewish educational programs over the past twenty years, I can
tell you that much debate and discussion exists over the best way to provide
the appropriate foundation for youngsters.
But increasingly, I feel that such a concern over methodology is
misplaced and ultimately saps our will and energy. Far more important is to
know what kinds of adults we’d like our children to become. What kinds of
ethical analyses and behaviors do we want them exhibiting when they’re grown
up? What kinds of traits in terms of compassion, kindness, honesty, and
guidance do we hope they’ll show? What kinds of parents, friends, spouses,
citizens, and members of religious community do we wish to see actualized? And,
just as importantly, what types of beliefs, character traits, and behaviors don’t
we want to see? What do we wish our children today to reject, disdain, and shun?
I’m convinced that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a core
of spiritual values related to these questions, and that this commonality can
best—-and most meaningfully--guide family advocates in coming years. Depending
on our particular personality, cognition, and conative (that is, behavioral)
natures, the child-rearing methods we choose are definitely of secondary
If we get too wrapped up in discussions about specific methods,
we’re sure to lose sight of our vital and shared goal. Today, there are so many
valuable ways to help children in families reach their full moral, ethical, and
spiritual potential. Within the context of our respective faith traditions,
let’s each find the path that speaks most to our heart. As Rabbi Hillel the
Elder observed nearly two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will
be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
I appreciate your invitation to allow my participation in this
eminently worthy enterprise.