How can we teach our kids to be mensches in a messed-up world?
If you’re keeping up with the news, you’re asking yourself this question: “Where has all the integrity gone?” Reports about Deflategate, Bridgegate, and Secret Service shenanigans blend with tales of celebrity misbehavior and Wall Street misfires.
The next question is: what kind of role modeling is this for our kids? Can they develop strong moral characters amid all this double-dealing? “The bottom line is the kids are watching us and they are copying us — the good, the bad, and the very ugly,” says Building Moral Intelligence author Michele Borba in her blog “50 Ways to Be a Great Example to a Child.”
According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans believe the state of moral values in the United States is on a downward trend. Does that mean it’s more challenging than ever to raise moral and ethical children? That depends on our priorities, which “vary across cultural and family frameworks,” says Dr. Jana Mohr Lone, director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children and author of The Philosophical Child.
Many families today focus on what Lone calls a “push toward the external” — pursuits such as academic achievement and sports. “They want to make sure their kids start building their résumés very early,” she says. “There’s not enough emphasis on becoming a certain kind of person. Often, kids don’t reflect deeply enough about what they think and why.”
And that’s a mistake, says Lone. “They will be facing complex moral dilemmas in their lives; it’s important they are able to think in rational, thoughtful, and compassionate ways about things.”
How can parents foster ethics and honesty in their children? How can we raise mensches?
“Part of the maturation process is learning to see the world through other people’s eyes.”
“From a developmental perspective, humans are born very selfish,” says Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, executive director of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. “Part of the maturation process is learning to see the world through other people’s eyes.” Role modeling helps “bring kids along on that journey,” she says. “The role modeling is more powerful if we can name what we are doing and why we are doing it — and tie to it bigger stories about how we do things in our families and in our tradition.”
In the Jewish tradition, Nussbaum notes, visiting the sick is a high value. “We don’t forget people who are on the margins,” she says. When someone is ill or in mourning, Nussbaum takes a meal to that person’s house — and brings her three children along with her.
She regularly discusses Jewish stories and rituals with her kids. “We were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Nussbaum says. “We know what that feels like. So we look out for strangers, and we take food to homeless shelters.”
The Hanukkah story also highlights certain moral philosophies, writes Wendy Mogel in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. “At Hanukkah we celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days,” she writes. “The modern version of this miracle is the recognition that what we already have may be all that we need — and that there’s even enough to share with others.”
Lone suggests parents find books that inspire kids to think what it means to be a friend, what happiness is, and how to reap more joy from giving than receiving. “We would like our children to be the kind of people others know they can rely on,” she says, “and who are contributors to their community.”