My daughter's preschool class just wrapped up Community Helper Week--five full days of learning about everyone from auto mechanics to zoo keepers. It seemed only natural, therefore, that I hit her up with the ultimate Jewish parent question at Shabbat dinner. "So, Emma, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Half astronaut, half ballerina, half movie star," she replied without missing a beat. But before I had a chance to revel in my child's admirable aspirations, she turned the tables on me. "Mommy, what do you want me to be when I grow up?" 

Magical Mommy Moment

Taken aback, I debated my answer.  Should I take a diplomatic approach (I want you to be whatever you want to be, Emma), or an overachieving one (All those things and a doctor too? How impressive!). Should I afford her a dose of realism (Halves come in twos not threes, honey.); or change the subject all together (Who's ready for dessert?)

No matter what route I considered, however, nothing seemed to do this question--or my daughter--justice. Fortunately, it was right about then that I had a magical mommy moment. You know, one of those rare instances when you realize that maybe being a parent hasn't robbed you of every last neuron you ever had, but actually allowed you to generate a few new ones!

I suddenly understood that the question at hand was not in fact the humdinger I'd taken it to be, but a no-brainer with a clear answer written in parchment and ink. For while it would certainly be nice for Emma to become an astronaut, movie star or physician one day, these are but secondary goals to that of watching her grow into a kind, compassionate individual. And so I delivered my answer with confidence and resolve. "Emma, when you grow up I want you to be a mentsch [good person]." 

Of course, my revelation was hardly profound. The edict of raising mentschlich [mentsch-like] children is interwoven throughout the Torah and Talmudic thought. It's just that, caught up in the stresses of 21st century family life, it's easy to lose sight of the long-term goals we hold for our children that transcend diplomas and graduate degrees.

By working to instill the following fundamental Jewish principles in our kids (adapted from Jewish Every Day: The Complete Handbook for Early Childhood Teachers by Maxine Handelman), we can help ensure that one day--underneath their spacesuits, Oscar gowns or doctors scrubs--our children embody the very values and mentschlekeit [the quality of being a mensch] that have kept our people growing strong for generations.

1. Kavod (Respect)

Straight from commandment number five, honor thy mother and father, comes this mentschlich staple. Of course kids should be taught to extend kavod to all people who touch their lives, not just mom and dad. A good way to reinforce respectful behavior is with the "if-then" game. "If the teacher asks you to finish your assignment before going out to recess, then what should you do?" "If your sister asks you to play a game with her and you aren't busy, then what should you do?" 

2. Tzedakah

This fundamental Jewish value implies a basic responsibility to do justice (tzedek) by sharing our resources with the community. Although it may require gentle nudges to get kids into the philanthropic spirit, encouraging them to put a

small portion of their allowance in the pushke [tzedakah box] on Shabbat or donating a few gently-used toys to the needy at Hanukkah promises to pay off over time.

3. Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World)

This mitzvah reflects the reciprocal relationship which God established with human beings: it is our obligation to take care of the earth, and in turn, it takes care of us. Picking up trash at the playground, planting and watering flowers, and helping to care for household pets, all build a sense of environmental mentschlekeit in kids.

4. Gratitude

It's no coincidence that the Modeh Ani--a proclamation of gratitude--is one of the first prayers a Jewish child learns and the first prayer we say each morning; gratefulness is a fundamental Jewish value. True gratitude, however, encompasses more than obligatory thanks; it entails hakarat hatov, or recognition of the good [another has done you]. By making comments like "Hannah is such a good friend to save you a seat at lunchtime" or "it was so kind of Grandpa to help build your model airplane," we help our children recognize and appreciate the intangible gifts bestowed upon them by others.

5. Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of Lovingkindness) 

In the Jewish religion doing good deeds is not just a nice thing to do--it is what we do. Children may exhibit lovingkindness by sharing toys, cheering on a friend at little league, or inviting a lonely classmate to join the four-square game at recess. We can encourage gemilut hasadim in our kids by setting a climate of helpfulness at home, praising unsolicited lovingkindness on our child's part, and, of course, modeling such behavior ourselves.

6. Slicha (Saying I'm Sorry)

Mentschlekeit isn't just about sweetness and light; it's also about owning up to our transgressions. By consistently requiring our kids to say "I'm sorry" when they've wronged someone (even if their apology seems a tad less than genuine), we help ensure that one day, when our children are more cognitively prepared to understand the importance and meaning of these two words, they use them consistently and autonomously.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sharon D. Estroff

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? was released by Broadway Books in 2008. Her website is sharonestroff.com.