Recently a well-meaning family member sent my ten-year-old a book for a gift. It was a "coming of age" novel, and after scanning it I determined that it was not appropriate for my children. I thanked the relative and tossed the book.
So what turned me into such a prudish censor?
Sad experience, and the desire to protect my kids from the same.
I grew up - as most Americans do in our day - bombarded by messages about sexuality. I have no specific memory of how I learned everything there is to know about the "facts of life." I just knew. We all knew, my friends and I, and it seemed we'd always known.
There were movies, books and magazines, and people dressed to attract attention. There was innuendo on television (this was long enough ago that they still stopped at innuendo; today, from what I hear, there's no longer any requirement of subtlety). There were "cool" parents who weren't afraid to talk frankly, to take their kids to Planned Parenthood, to encourage the "responsible" exercise of all this liberated activity.
I remember once when I was around 11 years old, my aunt and uncle took me to a movie, and during an explicit scene, my aunt whispered to me that she was sorry; she hadn't realized the movie would be so "adult."
"Oh, don't worry," I nonchalantly replied. "I'm used to it." By then I'd seen much worse.
For a time in my young adulthood, I really prided myself on being unfazeable. "There's not much that can shock me," I said between drags on my cigarette.
But inside I was empty. My self-respect had gone the way of my innocence, and I felt devalued and debased.
When I was exposed to traditional Judaism for the first time as an adult, this was one of many areas where the truth of Torah penetrated my heart.
I learned to dress in a modest fashion, allowing me to present myself as a person instead of a body. I felt free for the first time from the pressures of displaying myself to all of humanity. I felt a new sense of nobility. I am a Jewish woman, I realized, a daughter of the King. And I don't have to wait for a special occasion to clothe myself accordingly.
I learned to reserve my touch for those closest to me. I stopped shaking hands with men, and in so doing I felt I had stopped diluting the power of the affection I could share with my husband. Torah released me from the perceived obligation to give of myself to all, without boundaries.
Adopting Judaism's "restrictions" proved to be wonderfully liberating.
It also helped me regain some measure of my innocence.
I'll never forget the first time I went to the mall after I had been living as an observant Jew for a while. As I stepped off the elevator, I was confronted with an enormous poster of a shirtless man. It was a curious advertisement for a men's clothing store since there were no clothes anywhere in sight. And I blushed and averted my gaze.
I was happy to realize that I was allowing myself to be fazed.
Manis Friedman in his wonderful book Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore? says that when a man and a woman touch each other, they should feel something. To feel nothing is sad; it's a diminishment of the potential of this special relationship that God has given us.
I am burdened with memories that no daughter of the King should have to bear. And I want better for my children.
I had to work to reclaim this natural innocence, and it is not one hundred percent reclaimable. I am burdened with memories that no daughter of the King should have to bear.
And I want better for my children.
That is why I choose to raise them in a relatively sheltered manner. My husband and I carefully screen the materials our kids are exposed to. We do not keep explicit images around the house, and we do not allow them to read explicit materials (the same goes for violent materials, or other things that do not reflect our values). We do not watch movies, and we do not own a television. We have chosen to live in a religious community in Israel where our children are exposed to a minimum of vulgarity.
My children do not know who is the latest, hottest entertainer. They have no idea what's on television. They are blissfully unaware of the latest navel-baring fashions. And they do not, as of yet, know "the facts of life."
I don't think my children are missing anything. We listen - and dance to - joyful music that connects them to their traditions and enhances their spirituality with inspiring lyrics. They may not know Madonna, but they love Mordechai ben David. They read voraciously in both English and Hebrew, and we provide them with books that educate and entertain without reference to television, gratuitous violence, or intimate matters that they really don't need to think about at their tender age (yes, there really are books like that!). And as to the facts of life, we will teach them in the proper time, within a context of helping them to envision a committed family life.
I once heard Rabbi Noach Orlowek respond to a question about how we should teach our children about anti-Semitism. He gave an interesting metaphor. You pay a price for being a Jew in this world, he said. And everyone wants to get value for their money. The way to make it worth paying the price is simply to give our children a superior product. Give them the full richness of living a Jewish life (Shabbat, a full year of meaningful holidays, celebrations, Torah learning, and so on), and the rest will take care of itself. They will know that it is worth the "risk."
Similarly, I think that when my children are - inevitably - exposed to some "temptation," they will feel that any "price" they may have paid (in the form of not having access to secular entertainments) is worth it. By exposing our children to positive images of wholesome family life, and to the cultural references that we feel truly are important to their development, my husband and I hope to give them a superior product. Having seen nothing but stable, committed, caring marriages (both ours and those of our friends, neighbors, rabbis, and so on), our children will know what they really want out of life. They won't fall for the cheap thrill of casual encounters or destructive behavior, because they will have the background to be able to see those things for what they are. They won't be gullible; on the contrary, they'll have greater clarity than their "with-it" contemporaries in the secular world.
Go ahead and call me naive. I'm afraid I'm anything but. I know all too well that whatever their brains get filled with now will shape their future thoughts. And I consider it my parental responsibility to ask the question: What kind of memories do I want my children to have?
My answer is easy: innocent ones.