Jewish Journal

The Challenge of Raising a Mensch

by Maurice J. Elias

Posted on Jul. 22, 2004 at 8:00 pm

More than any one single thing, parents want each of their children to grow up to be a mensch. I have asked parents and educators across the spectrum of Jewish observance and belief what they want most for their children, and this is the answer that comes up more often than any other. Interestingly, when I ask the same question to non-Jewish parents, I get the same answer, though they don't use the same word. Parents want their children to grow up to be knowledgeable, responsible, nonviolent and caring. They want their kids to be concerned for others, their families and communities; good team players, yet also possess good leadership skills; decent and ethical; to love justice; to feel compassion for others and to act on those feelings; and be the kind of person one can count on, an all-around complete human being. In other words: a mensch.

Menschlekayt is the chicken soup of parenting for those raising Jewish children. If one's children possess this attribute, then one can be as assured as reasonably possible that they will avoid becoming headlines in the local and national news for committing acts of violence to others, or to themselves. And there is a good chance they will be a source of positive news in the community and beyond.

For Jewish parents, there is the additional challenge of raising a mensch with Jewish sensitivity and Jewish identity. This is no small feat. Child psychiatrist James Comer points out that the 21st century marks the first time in human history that children are receiving the majority of their information unfiltered by adult caretakers. This deserves rereading and contemplation. In essence, it means that now, more than ever, parental influence is in competition with the relentless forces of popular culture, the ideas of peers, and the mass media. Combine this with what Cornell child development specialist Uri Bronfenbrenner calls the "hecticness" of our lives now, and the seemingly increasing time demands made by many workplaces, and it is clear that parents are overmatched.

Parents do not have undiluted influence by virtue of being parents. Our biblical command to honor parents does not imply we will automatically learn from them. We are all part of the great marketplace of ideas and values. Parents must think quite consciously and carefully about their parenting if they want to be a primary source of influence on their children.

"In a place where there are no good people, strive to be a good person" (Pirke Avot 2:6).

Our traditions give us much guidance about how to proceed. It is the parents' job, despite the odds, to be a model of menschlekayt. Not a model of perfection, but of human decency. And there is now a recognition in the popular culture that this is necessary, that we have moved too far with regard to individualism, consumerism and the worship of cognitive capabilities. We have been endowed as human beings with what Josef Levi, recently retired superintendent of schools for the Tel Aviv Metropolitan School District, calls the "wisdom of the heart" -- binat halev.

It is what Daniel Goleman would refer to as "emotional intelligence." Goleman's worldwide bestseller, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ" (Bantam, 1997), makes it clear that advances in brain research, understanding the nature of human emotion and the operation of effective school-based programs to build children's social skills provides insight into how to strengthen positive influences on our children. More to the point, the way in which people have grasped the idea of emotional intelligence and its application to everyday life -- especially teaching and parenting -- is a signal that positive change is on the horizon. So is the emphasis on character education in schools across the United States.

"There needs to be a gyroscope in the mind of the Jewish parent to keep him or her focused in the tumult of everyday life," said Yakov R. Hilsenrath, rabbi emeritus of the Highland Park Conservative Temple and Center in New Jersey and longtime innovator in Jewish parenting education.

"What is needed is a conscious return to Jewish values, steering a careful course between the extremes of denial on the one hand and pleasure-seeking and self-indulgence on the other. In so doing, we should understand that our children, as creatures of the Almighty, must be treated no differently from the way we are expected to treat ourselves," he said.

Parents cannot abdicate their responsibility to moderate the messages and values that find their way to our children. This is not to advocate a high degree of restrictiveness; rather, it is to focus parents on the need to monitor, to make choices and to sometimes be willing to set and sustain limits to what children can and cannot see, hear, and do. Parents will make different decisions about such things as R-rated movies, computer games, drinking alcohol, curfews and the nature of clothing acceptable for school and family functions.

But the decision to "go along" with what "everyone else is doing" -- whether implicit or explicit, does great disservice to children and does not fulfill our parental responsibility to "teach children to swim" in the sea of life.

But the tumult of these times is so great, and the currents so strong, that parents need even stronger gyroscopic aids. Hence, my colleagues Steven Tobias and Brian Friedlander and I have coined a new version of the Golden Rule for the 21st century, the 24-Karat Golden Rule of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: Do unto your children as you would have others do unto your children.

Nowhere is this more applicable than the way in which we talk to children (and I would hasten that this advice, though focused on parents, is no less applicable to teachers). If we think very carefully and honestly about what we say to our children and how we say it, we might find ourselves wondering how we would react if a neighbor or a lunchroom aide or someone working in a store spoke to our child in the same way, using the same words and same tone of voice.

Why is this significant? Isn't all this just as it always has been? Isn't it true that our children were fine in the past and are fine now? Sadly, times have changed. Rates of depression, anxiety and antisocial behavior in children are on the upswing and are not at their low points. Recent research on the operation of the brain and the creation of human memory makes it clear that children remember not only information, but also the context in which something was said and the emotional tone present at the time. We can deny that this is so or wish it were not so, but it doesn't change the reality. How, when and where we say what we say is as important as what we say. Parents today are under great financial, work and personal pressures, pressures that lead to short tempers, unplanned outbursts and poor choices of words. And it is well worth remembering that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem had a great deal to do with the disrespectful way in which people spoke to one another, with lashon hara (gossip and slander).

If we want to raise children to be mensches, there is no more important place to start than with how we, their parents, treat them, If we treat them with respect, then they are likely to treat others that same way. If we are sensitive to them, they will exhibit that toward others. If we are fair, honest, not afraid of correcting them (even punishing them), but do so constructively, we will find that they are more likely to be that way when dealing with others -- and with us, when we are older and in a position to need their care. There is no doubt that parenting for menschlekayt -- what my colleagues and I refer to more generally as parenting with emotional intelligence -- will involve courageous action, parenting with the heart in mind and keeping Jewish values active in one's choices.

"The decisions made by parents clarify for children their parents' level of human sensitivity and moral choice," said Rabbi Hilsenrath.

From such choices, a mensch can emerge.

Pirke Avot informs us, "You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit" (2:21). Ultimately, it takes a kehilla, a community, to raise a mensch. The growing disconnection of our children from their Jewish education and Jewish values are not simple failures of parents or children, but rather they are failures of community. Schools, peer groups, neighborhoods and religious institutions must be vigilant, concerned, and involved.

While there is a Jewish communal responsibility to aid parents in this increasingly challenging task, it is the parents who must set the tone in their everyday lives. We do this not with pronouncements, but in the way we interact with children in the car, at meals, when we are under pressure and when they are feeling stressed, also. We need not be perfect, only human. We know from Exodus that when it came time to build the mishkan (the ark of the covenant), only those who had "wisdom of the heart" were allowed to be involved. These were not necessarily the most talented individuals; rather, they combined talent and personal integrity to an optimal degree. Those were the qualities desired. For our era, in education and in parenting, such wisdom is an important, contemporary, yet traditional and enduring way of working toward the goal of raising a child who is a mensch.

This article originally appeared in Jewish Values for Growing Exceptional Jewish Children,. vol. 2, published by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).  For more information visit www.caje.org.

Maurice J. Elias is a professor in the psychology department at Rutgurs University and is contributing faculty at the school's Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

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