Arkansas tragedy raises questions for every parent

As the families of Jonesboro, Ark. reel under the weight of the loss of four precious schoolchildren and a heroic teacher, the Jewish community, too, searches for answers.

On the drive to work we hear it on the radio. At work we look into each other's eyes and hope to put this ongoing tragedy into perspective. But sadly, back at home, most Jewish families are not sitting down to the Shabbat table to discuss their confusion.

And make no mistake about it, Jonesboro frightens children in the Jewish community. Our children feel helpless and alone in their hearts. After all, irrational violence and aggression have taken their toll throughout Jewish history.

Day after day we pick up the newspaper and read that another child has lain down and died.

We are stunned to hear that in each of these incidents other children knew that something "bad" might happen and yet no adult was ever notified until it was too late.

We are all questioning:

"What's happening to our young people?"

"Why is it so easy to get guns? Drugs? Alcohol?"

And the answers stream forth with fingers of blame pointed in every direction:

"We need more educational programs about the dangers of alcohol, guns and drugs!"

"It's that show, `South Park,' and the violence it represents!"

We are left with the realization that we are raising a generation of children cut off from the adult world. All the education in the world will have little effect unless each child can have a significant relationship with an adult in his or her life.

In a recent issue of the Woodstock Times, it was noted that teens have only eight minutes of conversation with their mothers and three minutes with their fathers each day. Our children are left on dangerous ground.

Children, without emotional support, either turn their fears onto themselves — resulting in depression and, worse, suicide — or they turn the pain outward into anger, violence and murder.

Adolescence is when children most need support, stability and encouragement. It's a myth that teenagers don't want to be close to their parents. In fact, for teens to grow, they need their parents as a safe haven from the world. But today, Jewish parents feel vulnerable, too helpless in not being able to connect with their children. They feel they lack the tools to cope.

As parents try to cope with their kids' struggles, will they be able to instill a love for Judaism into their hearts so their kids will be able to raise healthy Jewish families in 20 years? While a community can be a refuge, the Jewish family is the center stage where our destiny will unfold. Make no mistake about that. The struggle will take place on the home front.

But any tragedy contains the possibility of new direction. Beyond the educational programs and legal issues that must be tackled, we need to work on our relationships with our children. Ironically, Judaism's core values have a lot of the following basic common-sense things to say about building positive family relationships.

How to begin? Here are some suggestions:

*You don't have to be an expert, you just have to care and share.

*Talk to your children about everything — that's how they are going to develop values and direction in life. No topic is off limits. If your child brings it up, it is important. Otherwise, your child will get the information from the local drug dealer, peers or the television.

*Children want to be involved in family matters and family problems. So involve them.

*Never ignore the big topics — the Holocaust, sex, drugs, relationships, depression, suicide, etc. Children want to know what you think.

*Never be afraid to admit you were wrong and to apologize. It demonstrates how mistakes can bring out love. It is the essence of tshuvah (repentance).

*Ask questions, avoid lectures and listen to what your kid is saying. This develops good communication and underlines that you value your relationship with your child.

*Praise your kids for who they are and what they do. Be specific and don't forget the little things.

*Tell your kids you love them, and why.

*Look to hug your kid every day. Don't be fooled into thinking they don't cherish a warm embrace.

*Share your own struggles, including your struggles in Judaism, with your children. Let them know there is meaning to be learned from facing problems and growing spiritually.

*Ask your kids what was fun and difficult in school today. Ask for their opinions about their classes, teachers, friends. This signals that you are involved in their lives.

*Go with your children to shul as well as to movies, ballgames, etc. Your kids do want to spend time with you.

*Have fun and goof around with your children. Being a parent is more than being a serious adult.

*Share what has touched your life. Talk about what you believe in Jewishly — God, love, compassion, truth, kindness, honesty — and your uncertainties about these topics.

Now, it is true that in spite of all the hard work building a relationship with your child, trouble can come anyway. Teens do make big mistakes. But parents don't have to be haunted by the knowledge that they were not there for their child.

And if enough Jewish parents and people of good will decide to go out on the line for our children, then there will be a brighter day.