The story is told of the late Dr. Judah Folkman, who several years ago discovered promising anti-cancer therapies. Asked what motivated him to become a research physician, he explained that starting at the age of 7 he accompanied his father, a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio, on hospital visits to see patients. It was those visits that motivated him to seek a career in medicine.
This story demonstrates how modeling can dramatically shape a young child’s world. For children, the most significant modeling stems from their positive and negative interaction with peers. While parents are eager to improve their children’s behavior in the school setting, it is difficult to provide them with proper modeling since they are not present in school. My book, “Seven Steps to Mentschhood a Guide for Parents,” fills this void.
What Is a Mentsch?
When preparing to write the book, I asked approximately 50 adults and children to define the word “mentsch.” Not so surprisingly, no two definitions were alike. Yet there were common elements woven through all the responses. Essentially, the respondents felt that a mentsch is a good person who tries to behave in the “right way” or do “the right thing.” The challenge is to determine what the “right thing” is and how we go about doing it. This is where “Seven Steps to Mentschood” can be helpful.
The Foundation of Mentschhood
As our children become increasingly susceptible to a society that grows more insensitive every day, and appears less tolerant of one another, parents have turned to the school for help.
Unlike the popular and worthy movement known as “Random Acts of Kindness,” which leaves to chance the act of responding to the needs of others, “Seven Steps to Mentschhood” is more direct and purposeful. It seeks to train children to act kindly, using the powerful mitzvot of the Torah as a guide. When the opportunity arises to act altruistically, the Torah shows the way.
The “Seven Steps” are a collection of Torah-based principles—six of them mitzvot—that can serve as a guide for helping a child grow into what can easily be described as a mentsch. They proceed in a sequence: one that seems logical and of incrementally increasing difficulty. The chapters are first presented for parents to read independently and then to read along with their children to help them determine how to act as mentschen at school.
How does the Seven Steps program differ from other character-building programs?
In both the yeshiva and general educational settings there have been many programs instituted to encourage positive behavior among their students. Yet, as Education Week reported several years ago, when schools instituted school-wide character programs there was no evidence of improvement in student behavior.
Over the past several years, many yeshiva/day schools have instituted formal middot-development programs to help sensitize the students to the positive ways they might learn to treat one another. In many schools there have been versions of the “middah of the month” concept. Such programs are formal, usually academic in nature, and disconnected from real-life experiences. There is generally no mechanism to determine the long-rage impact of each unit of study.
The School-Home Connection
A primary goal of the Seven Steps program is to connect the home with the school’s ongoing efforts to help their children treat one another with greater empathy and understanding. Like their adult counterparts, most children want to treat others with dignity and respect. They want to respond to parents and educators who encourage positive behavior, one to another. Yet in the real world there are often legitimate and understandable reasons that make menschlich behavior difficult to achieve. Among them:
A fear of not looking “cool.”
Sometimes peers just seem obnoxious.
The children don’t really know how to achieve what is in reality a vague and unspecific goal.
Parents frequently express the opinion that school is not the “real world.” Yet for children, the classroom and the playing fields are the essence of their real world. “Seven Steps to Mentschhood” enables children to explore real-world situations, determine how to best apply the steps and carry them out successfully.
As parents review the content of each step together with their children, they are encouraged to review instances in which the child put them into action. Parents should always be on the lookout for and liberally praise these behaviors at home, especially toward and among siblings.
The Torah selections in this program are not based upon a collection of rules or a list of middot, but instead serve as seven principles of behavior. They focus on discussions that stem from actual everyday classroom situations. Parents and children may reflect upon these principles to assess how successful the child was in responding to relevant situations. Over time, the child will learn to reflect off of these principles and to make the best choices on his own. It is hoped that when observing such behavior and the application of the relevant principles, the discerning observer will be inspired to declare, “Now, there is a real mentsch!”
Next time: Step #1 ואהבת לרעך כמוך: Love your fellow person as yourself.
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.”