There is a story told of four elderly women sitting on a hotel patio:
Woman #1: “Oy”
#2: “Oy Vey!”
#3: “Oy vey iz mir!”
#4: “I thought we had agreed not to talk about the children!”
This story, told and retold for quite a while, teaches us two lessons: raising children is difficult and it’s a life task that doesn’t get easier over time. Yet these mothers could not have fathomed the degree of difficulty current parents encounter in their child rearing challenges. As a Yeshiva principal for over thirty-five years, parents have asked me from time to time why the school can’t make children behave more like a mentsch. The answer is not simple.
In the introduction to my book, “Seven Steps to Mentschhood,” I wrote that all parents want their children to exhibit fine character. Yet despite what parents see as the increasing urgency of this objective, the solutions appear to be more and more elusive. No matter how hard we try to protect and insulate our children, they seem ever more susceptible to the influences of a society that grows more coarse and insensitive with each passing day. The insidious encroachment of social media and other forms of mass communication expose our children to a culture that actually celebrates the dissolution of ethical and introspective behavior. More frightening is the very real threat that if anyone steps out of line with the rapidly changing norms of society, such persons will be “outed” and mercilessly hounded.
Against this backdrop, the act of raising a mentsch is an exceedingly difficult one. As many children are seen as behaving in less tolerant and understanding of their peers, parents have turned in increasing numbers to the school to refine their character. There are several reasons that solutions are not easily arrived at on the school level.
In the first place, most people would agree that for children to learn proper behavior they must be exposed to appropriate role models. Children will learn how to improve behavior when they are taught by example, especially peer example. The formal programs that schools have introduced in the both the public and private sectors at best appeal to the students’ intellect, but— as they are usually initiated by adults — provide limited opportunities for peer modeling.
Secondly, the school sees itself as a partner with the home in forming a child’s character. The school is not so much the definer of proper character traits as it is a refiner of those traits learned at home— traits that both the family and the school tend to hold in esteem. As such, the school alone cannot be held solely responsible and accountable for character development.
Third, many formal “midot” programs are likely to be ineffective and soulless because they are often based upon memorization, rote learning and paper and pencil testing. In fact, these programs may add to the source of current frustration because, on the one hand, the school says, “Look, we have a midot program, while on the other hand the parents may respond by saying, “Then why don’t the children behave nicely?”
Finally, it is important to understand that formal programs of character education usually depend upon extrinsic motivation. This means that the students learn to respond with the answers (or behaviors) that they know the teacher wants to see. A more effective approach is based upon the development of intrinsic motivation in which the child’s actions are reflective upon the values he has already internalized.
Simply put, ineffective midot programs are those that tend to manipulate behavior. More effective approaches to midot development must bring about a change in behavior from within. The child does not do the right thing because he wants to please someone; he learns to do the right thing because it is right. A child who seeks her teacher’s approval by sharing her snack with a classmate who left hers at home may be on the right track. However, the child who shares his snack because he doesn’t want his classmate to go hungry has clearly internalized a cherished value.
While it may be clear that helping a child grow into a mentsch is a formidable task, there are certainly many guidelines for parents to achieve success in this vital endeavor. The following is a brief list of guidelines to help parents along their way:
Minimize your personal reactions when your child complains of mistreatment by peers. Listen attentively and sympathetically; then begin brainstorming coping strategies.
Encourage your child verbally without resorting to reward and punishment.
Note even minor improvements in your child’s personal conduct and express your appreciation for them.
Tone down. When discussing difficult circumstances, try to use a soft, unhurried voice. Avoid speaking to children when you are angry or when your child is angry.
Support your child’s efforts at becoming independent. Slowly get used to the fact that it is his or her life. Treat setbacks as milestones on the road to success.
Consistently follow your routines, rules and guidelines.
Hillel was perhaps the most patient of all men. Was he as patient as an eight-year-old as he was when he was fifty? Be patient with your child and give him room and time to grow.
By Stanley Fischman
Stanley Fischman has been a Yeshiva elementary school principal for 35 years. Most recently he was the director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of educating young Jewish children. He is the author of “Seven Steps to Mentschhood – How to Help Your Child become a Mentsch.”