In this election year it bears repeating that the major changes that all of us seek will not come from politicians so much as parents, not from senators so much as teachers. Politicians change big things. But in America it's the little things -- our marriages, raising children, finding individual purpose -- where we most fail. With so many social ills afflicting our culture, it is time that we made fundamental changes to our values. Here is a list to revamp the values with which we raise our children:
1. Stop asking children what they want to do and start asking them who they want to be.
The first question speaks to occupation. The second speaks to character. Our children see right through our own hypocrisy. We pretend to be interested in the kind of people they will become, but seem upset only when they don't get into Harvard. But whether your children become garbage collectors or the President of the United States is subordinate to whether or not they are ethical people. Let's stop giving them mixed messages by always prodding them about the careers they will choose as opposed to the goodness they will live. The moral question always comes first. Dale Carnegie demonstrated definitively in How To Win Friends and Influence People that what people most wish to be is good. Our responsibility is to attune our kids to their inner voice of conscience.
2. Focus children on a calling rather a career.
Once we parents deliver the message to our kids that we want them to be good even more than we want them to be 'successful,' our educational system can follow suit by guiding our children toward a calling over a career. Career focuses on self-aggrandizement and accumulation. It encourages narcissism and fosters insecurity. The child is encouraged into a life of self-absorption as he measures his 'success' by how far along he is in comparison to his peers. He is trained to be outward-oriented, determining his self-worth by his position on the career ladder and viewing his companions as competitors. By contrast, a calling teaches the child to fixate on his unique gift, the special contribution with which he is endowed to enrich the world, thereby developing his individuality. A child with a calling encourages the success of others but a child with a career always feels threatened by another's success.
3. Intellectual curiosity as opposed to grades.
Here is a paradox for you to ponder. How is that 60 percent of Americans have a college degree, but an equal number can't find Iraq on a map? Americans are more educated and more ignorant than ever. Here's why. They're trained to perform rather than to know, to ace exams rather than love knowledge, to specialize in particular subjects rather to be curious about life as a whole. As a result, their own existence bores them. After four years of higher education, they settle down to a life of Access Hollywood and People magazine. Kids who are attentive in class come home and sit with jaws agape as they watch the same mind-numbing videos over and over again. They don't read books unless they are required to by school. I would rather have a child who goes to a community college and is a sponge for information that a child who goes to Harvard but has no passion for history, ideas, or current events. Business success stories bare this out. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of school. They were successful because of their limitless curiosity, not their earth-shattering SAT score. Our grades fixation is undermining our children and turning them into circus monkeys designed to perform. We have to start telling our kids that grades are only one barometer of a far more important issue: their curiosity about life. As I tell my kids repeatedly, "All I want to know is that you want to know."
4. Purpose as opposed to happiness.
Mothers and fathers telling their children 'I just want you to be happy' is one of the silliest parenting mantras ever. What if being a lazy beachcomber makes the kid happy. What if womanizing does it for him, or drugs? This is aside from the fact that the only thing that brings real happiness is a sense of purpose, as Victor Frankl compelling argues in his twentieth century masterpiece, Man's Search for Meaning. A child must be taught that his life must be directional, other-oriented, and purposeful. If he devotes his life to a worthy cause then personal fulfillment and happiness will naturally follow. But if he squanders his potential, his life will be filled with misery. The pursuit of happiness makes a child a burden to himself. The pursuit of purpose, however, liberates our talents and brings joy.
5. Family as opposed to friends.
Placing friends before family is yet another destructive modern value. Friends love you for your virtue, your sense of loyalty, your sense of humor. But family loves you for just being you. A child's formative years requires the unconditional love that only family can offer rather than the more tentative love that friendship affords. This is not to say that friendship is not important, but rather that the ratio of friendship-time to family-time in after school hours must be at least five to one.
6. Love as opposed to attention
Everyone today wants to be famous, especially our kids. I am convinced that the lust for attention is a result of the death of love. Hollywood celebrities have the adoration of the cameras. But they can't seem to stay married or keep themselves or their kids out of rehab. That's because the love of the masses is fickle and is dependent on your ascendant or waning fortunes. It exploits human insecurity and leaves you feeling used. Our children need to know that attention is a cheap forgery for love, a flimsy imitation of the real thing. They must learn to love people without expecting anything in return. To be the hero without the spotlight. To do the right because it's right, when no one's looking, and where no recognition will follow from their virtuous act. Lending dignity to others is the surest way to acquire it yourself.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily national radio show on 'Oprah and Friends' and has just published 'The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him' (St. Martin's Press). www.shmuley.com