After her bath tonight, my kid wanted to comb her own hair. Knotty, wet, matted baby hair doesn’t want to be combed by a 3-year-old and yet, I sat on my hands and let her pull at her hair with the brush. I bit my tongue as she struggled with her part; I winced when she left big bumps and knots at the back. I didn’t help.
Post-bath routine takes forever these days, and not just because my kids want to comb their own wet hair. They want to brush their own teeth, apply their own lotion, pick out their own pajamas, and put those pajamas on alone. They put them on backwards, then they switch them around, they try again, they fall on the floor, they lose focus, they squeeze toothpaste on the floor, they pee on the potty, they sometimes miss the potty, they pull toilet paper from the roll laughing hysterically as any sense of order collapses, they run like tiny maniacs around in circles until they fall in a pile of matted hair and Q-tips.
It would be so much easier if they just let me do it for them.
It’s the same thing in the morning as we’re headed out the door–to school, to camp, to the museum, wherever. They must put on their shoes themselves. The shoes invariably go on the wrong feet. They try again. Their shoes are still on the wrong feet. I begin to feel a little crazy. I push my way into the pantry/closet/shoe graveyard where they sit on the floor struggling with the shoes and I insist that they let me put them on because come on we’re late but no, as their teacher says, they are very “single-minded” and I am made to wait as they struggle. But then they get their shoes on correctly and they smile up at me and they feel so happy about this one little triumph, which, when you think about it, is really quite big.
And when dinnertime is over on Thursday, and Grandma and Grammie are leaving and we’re heading upstairs to begin the comedy routine that is bath/books/bed, it’s time for teaching again. This time, it’s not right foot left foot but rather, it’s gratitude. Kindness. I insist on hugs and kisses and thank-yous all around. They say “YUCK, no kisses” and they ignore my instructions to thank their grandmothers. My voice gets very loud and serious and I insist again. Thank-yous are non-negotiable. This is something they must do. They must thank people who are kind to them.
Later that evening, just before lights out, their father will give them each a fistful of coins to drop into their tzedakah boxes, because this is also what you do. You collect money for those who have less and need more. This is how you live. You brush teeth, you pull on a t-shirt, you put your shoes on the right feet, you say thank you, you give tzedakah, you move through life.
Every minute of every day, we’re teaching our kids how to live and how to do it all without us. How to best us, really; how to live a life even better than the one we did, than the one we’re currently smack dab in the middle of living. And we hope we’re teaching them to do it healthfully and happily, with resilience and character and compassion and smarts, so much more smarts than we had. From the bit with the shoes to the bit with the thank-yous to the bit with the tzedakah, we are teaching them how to be.
Just like Moses did.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’et’hanan, Moses tells the Israelites that he won’t be leading them into the land of Israel. His story ends here; the Jews will go on without him.
Moses then tells the Israelites about what will happen in the future. He suggests worst-case scenarios and suggests ways in which they might fix things should those scenarios come to pass. He tells the Israelites what he thinks is important: don’t worship idols, practice loving kindness, honor your parents, don’t kill anyone, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t be jealous, don’t lie, remember where you came from. Good advice.
These are ethics. Moses is teaching the people of Israel a “body of ethics” in this portion, just as we mean to do with our kids. Sure, we need to teach them the basics of executive functioning, but just as crucial, to be kind, to be honest, to be passionate, to care.
Maybe Moses wasn’t ever meant to lead the children of Israel all the way. Maybe the plan all along was for the Israelites to keep on going alone, just as any child will have to do. Our kids, at least the little ones, don’t know that we won’t always be around to fix the backwards t-shirt, wipe the chin, prompt the thank-you. They don’t need to know that yet. For now, we’re here, but we must get busy filling their character arsenal: here’s how you can be a good person. I’ll tell you everything I know.
I watched a grandfather push a stroller up and down the sidewalk today. It was the first time I imagined myself as a grandparent. What will I want my grandchildren to know? How to be curious, earnest, passionate, joyful. These are the things then that I must teach my kids now, so that they can teach their kids the same. It would be cool if they played an instrument, spoke multiple languages, ran for public office, traveled the globe. But first they must be kind. They must be committed. They must be generous and honest. The rest will follow. I hope I’m around to see it. But even if I’m not, I’ve got to make sure they can go it alone. That’s my job above all else.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.