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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 1999 /17 Shevat 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Teaching morality

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) ONE OF THE BEST THINGS MY HUSBAND EVER DID -- in the realm of child rearing -- was to introduce our three sons to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, a story that takes wicked delight in consigning obnoxious brats to various deaths.

If our children were frightened or alarmed by the fates awaiting Augustus Gloop or Veruca Salt, they didn't show it.

Once absorbed, the lessons of the book proved awfully handy. Almost every character in the story -- with the noble exception of Charlie -- is a spoiled brat of epic proportions. When any of our children begins to get that whiny sound in his voice, we answer, "Yes, Augustus," and that is enough to short-circuit a gripe.

Perspective about themselves does not come naturally to children. Trying every tactic they can think of to get their way does. Without adult guidance, they will nag, wheedle, bargain or scream to get what they want.

But if the adult is able to say, "You sound like Augustus," it brings them up short. It doesn't usually occur to a young child to think about how he sounds. He is un-self-conscious. This is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, it can be one of the glories of childhood. It is why they can be hilarious without realizing it. We were once on a trip to Harper's Ferry, W.Va. The bus driver who took us from the parking lot to the historical park struck up a conversation. "So, where are ya'll from?" he asked. David, then 4, answered matter-of-factly, "We came from our mommy's tummy."

But sometime on the road to first grade, self-consciousness does make an appearance. For Jonathan, 7, it did so with a vengeance. Overnight, he went from a child who had no idea what he was wearing to a kid who had to tie his jacket around his waist just so and wear just the right color hiking boots. He wanted to wear baseball caps turned backward, but Mom put her foot down about that.

As a parent, my goal is to get their newfound self-awareness to work for me! I will admit that after years of nagging Jonathan about certain hygiene habits, I am more than happy to see the power of peer pressure at work.

At least on the 5-and-older set. Don't try this with the younger ones. Benjamin, who will be 3 this month, is in the midst of potty training. Thinking to boost his enthusiasm for the project, I asked him if he wanted to be a big boy like Jonathan and David. "Ha, ha," he replied. "You're very funny, Mommy." Perhaps I'll get better results explaining that firemen invariably use the potty ...

A child's budding self-awareness can be directed to more important matters than fashion or hating Barney. (Every 5- or 6-year-old of my acquaintance feels the need to prove his maturity by professing to loathe Barney -- but most will continue to watch if they think they are unobserved.) By 5, they are ready for serious moral laws as well.

In the Jewish religion, the Torah is read in synagogue chapter by chapter throughout the year. We are approaching the chapter in which G-d gives Moses the law. My children know all about Pharaoh and the parting of the Red Sea because that story is told every Passover. But last week, for the first time, I talked with my 5-year-old about what G-d wants from us. David was so fascinated, he was practically taking notes. "What does 'honor' mean?" he asked (proving that he is ready to pontificate about Bill Clinton). "What does 'covet' mean?" I was tempted to offer a disquisition on bearing false witness but resisted.

So often, parents and teachers give children the impression that being "good" means being quiet and holding still. But their little souls are ready for higher things. When they can step back and look at themselves objectively -- particularly with the knowledge that there is a higher moral authority -- they can begin the lifelong process of learning to be honorable and righteous.

The most gratifying thing is to see how much they want to.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.