This summer, my son wore his bathing suit and swim shirt for five days in a row—he slept in his bathing suit, wore it swimming the next day, and to bed that night. He did this for about five different weeks throughout July and August.
My kids (13 and 11) don’t make their beds every morning. They don’t do their own laundry either. Or take out the garbage. Ditto for loading the dishes in the dishwasher. Sometimes I feel guilty that they don’t help out more around the house. Once in a while I’d like my son to put on a clean shirt and brush his hair. But truthfully, I don’t care that much.
Before you start thinking that my kids are spoiled, entitled or just plain slobs, and before you think that I’m an indulgent parent, let me tell you what I do care a great deal about—I care deeply that my kids are good citizens of the world. A great deal of my parenting energy is spent trying to raise children who will grow up to be mensches.
So what if my son wears the same shirt every day for a week? So what if my kids’ beds are left unmade? Big deal. It’s more important to me that they remember to say please and thank you, that they help the elderly woman in the grocery store who has trouble lifting something heavy from the shelves, that they offer to help their friend’s mom who needs an extra hand.
I have a few friends who have preschool-aged kids. When we visit with them, I expect my children to play with their children, help resolve any sibling issues and clean up at the end of the visit. (And just to defend my kids a bit…they do set the table and clear and also, on occasion, they help me cook dinner. Whenever I’m stressed or having a tough day they are happy to pitch in with whatever I need.)
Of course, keeping my kids healthy and safe is of primary importance but right after that comes being kind, compassionate, generous and thoughtful. I want my kids to treat others as they would like to be treated—fairly, decently, honestly, and as equals. I want my kids to notice the world around them: who needs help, who is left out, who might be suffering.
My kids know that it’s really important to me that they are inclusive. When I was younger, I was always aware of a clear distinction between those that had and those that didn’t. And I always felt like a have-not. I didn’t live in a big fancy house like many of the popular girls. (I shared one bathroom with four siblings.) I didn’t own the latest designer jeans. We didn’t travel very much. I worked all through high school and during the summers—not because I wanted to, but because I had to.
The irony is that now I can afford to buy my kids the latest designer jeans. We’ve been to Spain and Italy and Israel. My kids have their own bathrooms. Yet, I refuse to raise children who think there is an inherent difference between people just because of superficial things, external and material things. My kids need to know we are all special—that every 11 and 13-year-old around the world is just as unique and wonderful as they are.
My husband and I talk a lot about volunteer work with our kids. He chaired the board of a large Jewish organization and is involved with a number of non-profits that help our community. I work with our synagogue helping to organize rides for the seniors to services and I cook meals for members of our community who are in need. I’m also chairing a wonderful committee that honors teachers in Jewish education. We volunteer at our local food pantry and glean in the summer. Our kids have volunteered at our local library, our synagogue, and their elementary school. They haven’t loved every minute of it, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if they are bored or complain about the hard work. For me, this kind of work is non-negotiable.
It’s important, too, that my kids know that being a mensch does not mean being a pushover. Quite the contrary, it’s about being strong, working hard and fighting for what you believe in. Mensches make the best leaders. They are humble, empathetic and authentic. They lead by example. They are good listeners and take care of those around them. They are courageous. These are the kinds of leaders people want to rally around. These are the kind of leaders who inspire others.
And just in case you think my kids are perfect little mensches—I assure you they are not. They whine and want things all the time—iPhones and comic books and expensive sneakers. They procrastinate. They fight. Sometimes they talk back, get angry, and slam doors. I worry, too, that despite my efforts, they will grow up to be selfish, narcissistic, and mean-spirited. I compare myself to other mothers and feel like I come up short.
I know there’s no magic formula or shortcuts for raising good kids. It’s hard work and still, there’s no guarantees. But, ultimately I’m trying to parent in the way that feels right to me and that’s all I got. If my kids grow up to be decent, kind, and loving people I will feel like I’ve done something right. And somewhere along the way I will show them how to do their laundry.