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?”
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?”
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, it’s always worth it.