When asked about the greatest challenge he faces today, the principal of one of the largest Jewish high schools in the United States related to me this complaint:

Parents spend thousands of dollars a year in tuition to send their children to our school where, along with calculus and chemistry, we are expected to teach some semblance of ethics. Then, on Sunday, the parents take their child to an amusement park and lie about his age in order to save five dollars on the admission fee. To save five bucks they destroy a $15,000 education.

Our best day school and high school principals have included separate ethics courses in their school curricula. A handful of these educational experts have gone even further, weaving an ethics perspective into every aspect of their schools’ educational program. All of these curricular and extra-curricular programs constitute heroic attempts to provide our children with the highest quality Jewish education. It is hard to imagine what more the brave pioneers of these programs can do to improve our children’s character.

There is another step we could take, and that step might do more to improve our children’s ethics than any of the commendable efforts described above. We parents and teachers could also engage in the sort of structured and guided work on character development we are so proud to see our children do. We could create “mussar vaadim” (ongoing character-development workshops) for interested parents and teachers. Participants in these programs would actively work on their character so as to be more thoroughly refined models for their students.

Our tradition tells us that we parents and teachers can be powerful role models. The rabbis of the Talmud long ago explained, for example, that a child speaks in the marketplace the way he heard his parents speaking at home. [1] Psychologists also remind us that the model we parents present influences even our youngest children.

Consider this report from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Neonates are born with an instinctive capacity and desire to imitate adult human behavior. That infants can, and do, imitate an array of adult facial expressions has been demonstrated in neonates as young as a few hours old, i.e., before they are even old enough to know cognitively that they themselves have facial features that correspond with those they are observing. It is a most useful instinct, for the developing child must learn and master a vast repertoire of behavior in short order.[2]

The JAMA report also warns about the downside of pediatric modeling: Whereas infants have an instinctive desire to imitate observed human behavior, they do not possess an instinct for gauging a priori whether a behavior ought to be imitated. They will imitate almost anything, including behaviors that most adults would regard as destructive and antisocial.[3]

U.S. studies indicate that the probability of a child’s smoking doubles if one parent smokes and quadruples if both parents smoke.[4] Data from the Norwegian National Health Survey demonstrate that the probability of a young adult’s having a diet low in fat is five times higher if one of his parents had a low fat intake. Similar associations exist for alcohol consumption, wearing seatbelts and doing exercise, [5] and we have no reason to believe parental example does not powerfully influence all behaviors.

If we respond to disobedience harshly, our children and students will likely do the same. If we are dishonest or steal, the odds are that our children will internalize these behaviors too. Whether or not we intend to do so, through example we plant our own behavior in our children. Unless they make heroic efforts to uproot these seeds later in life, our children will grow up to be very much like us.

Of course, we parents can also be the most powerful positive role models in our children’s lives. A mother whose child attends a yeshiva high school told me this story:

She went to the market with her children. When she was checking out, the clerk failed to properly credit her for a promotional item. After unsuccessfully trying to rectify the matter with the checkout clerk, the woman approached the store manager and explained the mistake. The manager was busy, not terribly interested in the woman’s complaint, and initially uncooperative. However, eventually the manager reached into his cash drawer and handed her two dollars compensation. On their way home, the woman realized that the manager had given her too much money. She was already late, however, and could not return to the market.

That night, however, the woman could not sleep. She kept thinking about the money in her wallet that did not belong to her. In the morning, she rushed the children to get ready for school early, left with them ahead of schedule, and drove straight to the market. There, in front of her children, she explained to the manager the mistake he had made the previous day. The manager was not interested in the story but took the overpayment and returned it to the register drawer.

Months later, the woman’s son took a difficult test at school. Most students did poorly on the test, but her child received a mark of “A+”. Indeed, in front of the class the teacher praised the boy for his perfect performance. Then, because so many students had received low grades, the teacher decided to review the correct answers aloud with the class. During the review, the boy realized that he had actually made a mistake on the exam but the teacher had failed to see it. Throughout the review the boy struggled with his desire for the “A+”. Ultimately his conscience triumphed. After class he approached the teacher and pointed out the grading error.

At home later that day, the boy told his mother the story. She praised him for his willingness to sacrifice his “A+” on the altar of honesty. Her son explained that a battle had raged inside of him while he listened to the review. But then he remembered his distraught mother trying to give some cash back to a market manager. The boy told his mother that in that moment his internal battle ended and he realized what he was going to do. (As a pleasant postscript to the story: The teacher was so impressed with the boy’s honesty, she rewarded him by giving him the “A+” despite the mistake.)

We all know of children who have been scarred by parents and teachers who respond with anger, use vicious language, or display selfishness, dishonesty, or other less-than-refined traits. Sometimes they drop their religiosity. Sometimes they just mirror the harshness they experienced at home or in the classroom. I meet such children every week. They are living testimony to the necessity of a formal framework for adult character development.

Most parents and teachers realize that values and perspectives must be planted by personal example. However, in practice we sometimes try to build into our children and students behavioral routines that we personally have not yet mastered. We insist that our children get proper sleep, even though we scrape by on far less than we need. We insist that they eat properly, even though we survive on coffee and donuts. We insist that they control their anger, even though we sometimes show rage. In short, we find it easier to work on our children than on ourselves, and so that is sometimes what we do.

This hypocrisy has disastrous results: Too many children legitimately view their parents and/or teachers as insincere. Disrespect burgeons slowly until, around ages 12-15, it shreds the parent-child or teacher-student relationship. Then children reject the moral authority of the adults in their lives. They isolate themselves emotionally from parents and teachers, and begin making their own (often self-destructive) decisions.

Or sometimes these children thoroughly accept the lessons of their childhood. They might behave beautifully and do well in school, but they also absorb their mentors’ inconsistency. By their late teens or early twenties, these children have mastered the art of hypocrisy, and much of their behavior has absolutely nothing to do with their stated values. These are the university-age students who claim they want a better world and yet purchase term papers off the Internet. Even if we never cheated in school, if we acted with hypocrisy in other areas of our lives, our children will absorb that lesson and practice it wholesale.

Eventually, the real values and perspectives we parents and teachers planted through our own behavior (for better or worse) show themselves. If we want to raise children who will grow into good adults, we must plant the seeds of goodness with our own sterling conduct.

Being a model is not easy. Our children see us at all hours of the day under all circumstances, making it impossible to maintain a facade of ethical refinement. If we have a temper or other negative traits, they will see these. Moreover, as we struggle to behave appropriately at all times, we discover that good intentions alone do not produce good behavior. Sometimes, even when we do not want to get angry, we find ourselves slipping out of control. We have no choice but to work on ourselves. We must set aside time to develop our character, especially our patience.

The traditional framework for working on character is the vaad—a group of five to 15 people, led by a Torah scholar experienced in vaad work. This traditional approach is complex, long-term, often counterintuitive, and highly effective. Here in Jerusalem there are over 120 English-speaking mothers and fathers participating in vaads, ongoing character-development workshops. Most have been members of their vaad for more than four years, and many have participated for over seven years. They meet every 2-6 weeks to learn about the particular character trait they are working on, receive practical exercises and readings that will help internalize the character trait, and discuss their successes and failures.

I saw members of one vaad work on themselves until anger became an extremely rare and muted event. I saw members of another vaad develop so much integrity that members never broke their word, even when the commitment was as small as “I’ll be off the phone in a minute.” These are great achievements, and they have exerted profound influence on the vaad members’ children (some of whom are in their late teens and early twenties and have joined vaads themselves).

Jewish education has come a long way in the last 50 years, and the Jewish day school movement has consistently been on the cutting edge of this progress. Perhaps the time has come to redefine the state-of-the-art in Jewish education, and perhaps innovative day school administrators, teachers, and parents will once again lead the way.

When our forefather Abraham sent his servant Eliezer off to find a wife for his son, Isaac, Abraham asked Eliezer to swear that he wouldn’t bring home a woman from the local Canaanites—known for being murderers and thieves. Rather, Eliezer was told to select a woman from Abraham’s homeland—even though those women were known for being idol worshippers.

The author of the Torah commentary Kli Yakar [6] asks why Abraham preferred an idol worshipper over a murderer or thief. He answers that although we parents attempt to pass two inheritances to the next generation—our character traits and our beliefs—only our character traits pass instantly and without modification into our children. Our beliefs hover in spiritual no-man’s-land until our children choose to accept them or reject them.

Abraham understood that murder and theft result from corrupt character. He reasoned that a woman from a family with corrupt traits would necessarily pass those traits on to her children, and the Jewish People would need to make a massive effort in later generations to clean out this character-contamination.

Idol worship, in contrast, results from mistaken beliefs. Unlike the inheritance of character traits, parental beliefs don’t necessarily penetrate too deeply and their superficial influence could be corrected quickly. As long as the character traits of Isaac’s future wife were in order, a few introduction-to-Judaism classes could straighten out her beliefs, and her descendents then would be refined, faithful members of the Jewish nation.

Jewish day school administrators, teachers, and parents now have an extraordinary opportunity to guarantee the inheritance of our children. The character-development vaad has proven popular here in Jerusalem. Without doubt, it would be at least as popular in other cities across the world. Perhaps ongoing character-development workshops are the framework we will choose to build the spiritual fortune we will pass to the next generation.