How to Raise - or grow up to be - a Mensch

Last January I was asked to speak about how to raise a mensch. I've since given the matter a good deal more thought and I want to share this with you. Since those of us here are of all ages, Perhaps some of us can focus on how to raise a mensch and others of us can apply these ideas to how to grow up to be a mensch.

There is very little in our classic literature on how to accomplish this. After all, the term "mensch" is a fairly modern, central European term and does not appear in the Bible, Talmud or later, medieval codes.

We do note (and I remember thinking about it during the Columbine tragedy last year) that the Bible does have a category of what to do with the ben sorer u'morer. This "rebellious" child (presumably, if we fail as parents) is to be taken out and stoned. I am not a biblical scholar, nor, currently a rabbinic scholar. I do not spend my time with the classic texts of our people. However, I can state quite clearly that I would not use Bereishit/Genesis and its stories as a model

  1. Abraham and Ishmael - father ignores son
  2. Abraham and Isaac - father tires to kill son I have a different "take" on this one that you can read at my Web site
  3. Lot and his daughters - I won't even go there
  4. Isaac and Jacob & Esau - father plays favorites (this one gets repeated often)
  5. Laban and Leah & Rachel - what did the girls know of the switcheroo?
  6. Jacob and his brood - replay of the Isaac problem of favorites

Mothers don't fair much better.

  1. Sarah and Ishmael & Isaac - an early "Cinderella?"
  2. Rebecca and Jacob & Esau - not only does she play favorites but she connives


There is one crucial item from our classic literature that I must mention before I go on. I'll repeat it later, even though I don't know how to implement it fully. Remind your kids that even though they may not like us all the time, and even, now and then they may even "hate" us as parents (after all, that's our job), they must continue to honor us. It's the "honor" part that is hard to define/implement. I know there are scads of commentaries, but I'll leave that to others to explicate.

This is COMMAND #5 of the 10 COMMANDMENTS. Then the shma goes on to make sure we do the right thing by our kids by reminding us that "You shall teach them diligently to your children" (Deut. 6:6-7) This is all biblical.

There are a number of rabbinic sources that deal with parental (in this case paternal) obligations to children.

  1. We must provide for our child's needs, including their daily care (Yad Ishut 13:6; Shulchan Aruch EH 73:6, 7)
  2. We must educate them and teach them Torah, make sure they learn a trade/profession (and one other thing, swim) and bear all the relevant expenses to this end. (Kid. 29b, 30; Shulchan Aruch Yore Dea 245:1,4)
  3. Mind you the mother has no legal obligation to maintain her kids (even if able). CHILD SUPPORT! (Ba'er Heitev EH 71 n.1).

I find it interesting that a review of the indexes of the Talmud and the Encyclopedia Judaica have no mention of the term "parenting" and these comments to which I've referred deal only with legal/economic relations.

At the same time, so I've mentioned, a child is to honor his/her parents (that their days may be increased upon the land which Adonai your God gives you). One who obeys this command gains a reward in this world and in the next.

An interesting rabbinic comment about child parent relations: (Kid. 30b-31a) as a child honors his/her mother more than his/her father due to "kindness," Torah places Honor the Father ahead of the Mother (Ex. 20:12). However, because a child fears his/her father more than his/her mother, Torah places Fear of the Mother ahead of the Father (Lev. 19:3).

One other way in Which a child should honor his/her parents is but not sit or stand in a parent's usual place, nor contradict them (in public or private at all is not made clear), nor support their opponent's point of view in a scholarly debate.

So, I must respond as a man who is a rabbi. That is, not from rabbinic texts, but from experience gleaned. I glean this experience from being a son and a father. I also learn from various readings (including Judaica) and of the experience of those with whom I come into contact. There is a technical term for why you look at/to me qua rabbi for a meaningful answer to this question (just as how the physician's family must always be healthy). However, I must begin with a caveat that I am, like you, a flawed human being.

What do I need and what must I do?

When people ask me how I've managed to get such wonderful kids I tell them I use whips and chains. When I unlock them I put them on a very long rope. (I'm told that I shouldn't say/write this as I'll get into trouble - it seems that Roosevelt's wisdom has distorted our lives and we now fear everything, everyone's perception of us, as well as ourselves.)

But really:

  1. Hug and kiss them continuously, it keeps them off-guard (and near you).
  2. Model: yourself, be a mensch.
  3. Remember that you are only one of the forces that affects your children.
  4. Remind them that even though they may not like us all the time, and even, now and then even "hate" us as parents (after all, that's our job), they must continue to honor us (and that's hard to define, so I'll not pursue it further).
  5. Write your "ethical will" and share it with your children. Re-write it each year.
  6. As suggested by R. Joe Telushkin (who may or may not have originated it): When you are wrong say: "I'm sorry. I was wrong."
  7. Also as suggested by R. Joe Telushkin: Save the greatest praise you have for when your child does something that is menschlich (i.e. not for grades or other "performances.")
  8. Have unlimited patience (as a finite individual, this is [of course] impossible).
  9. Remember that you have two ears and one mouth (the ability to listen twice as much as you speak).
  10. Learn early that your children will write the history of your relationship.
  11. Never raise your voice (of course, this is item 1).
  12. Never say never, never again. And (while we're quoting popular culture) Accentuate the Positive; eliminate the negative.
  13. When your kids do something outrageous remember that it may seem that they are doing it to you. But, they are probably not. Don't respond "personally."
  14. Remind them that (as strange as it may seem and as little as it actually appears) you continue to learn things from your parents. That at each stage of our lives, we are ready to learn something that we did not know we needed to know before, and our parents have already been (at least near) there.
  15. Remember that as different as our children think their world seems from our's, theirs is much more like ours than ours was when compared with that of our parents and even more so, our parents' was when compared with their parents'. We have more in common than we have that separates us.
  16. Remember what Mark Twain said about his father (and be careful, you can't say this to your kids when you think you need to - it will only make things worse) I paraphrase: When I was 18 I couldn't imagine how stupid my father was. When I turned 21, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in only three years.

Now, some of you will argue that as a rabbi, and the husband of a rabbi, our kids must be menschen. After all, there's that "God" connection. I thank you for the compliment. However, like the cobbler, whose children go unshod and other similar situations, there's no guarantee that this should be so. I have to admit that if our children have grown up the way we would like, I don't think that God has much to do with it all. The fact that we are rabbis means that we (and our children) are intensely involved in the life of a community of people. Our children have had the opportunity to mingle with wonderful people (and some difficult ones) from many walks of life and all periods of their lives. Our children have experienced more births, more bar mitzva celebrations, more marriages, more illnesses and, yes, more deaths than most people (let alone children). I believe that it is this deep connection to the life of a community of people - the connectedness that makes re-legion (the word's original meaning) - something that each and everyone of us can have, that has made them the people they are.

So, how to raise, or grow up to become a mensch: come be a part of our community.