Raising a Mensch

A mother's reflections and suggestions.


Reprinted with permission of the author.

My daughter’s preschool class just wrapped up Community Helper Week–five full days of learning about everyone from auto mechanics to zoo keepers. It seemed only natural, therefore, that I hit her up with the ultimate Jewish parent question at Shabbat dinner. “So, Emma, what do you want to be when you Ballerinagrow up?”

“Half astronaut, half ballerina, half movie star,” she replied without missing a beat. But before I had a chance to revel in my child’s admirable aspirations, she turned the tables on me. “Mommy, what do you want me to be when I grow up?” 

Magical Mommy Moment

Taken aback, I debated my answer.  Should I take a diplomatic approach (I want you to be whatever you want to be, Emma), or an overachieving one (All those things and a doctor too? How impressive!). Should I afford her a dose of realism (Halves come in twos not threes, honey.); or change the subject all together (Who’s ready for dessert?)

No matter what route I considered, however, nothing seemed to do this question–or my daughter–justice. Fortunately, it was right about then that I had a magical mommy moment. You know, one of those rare instances when you realize that maybe being a parent hasn’t robbed you of every last neuron you ever had, but actually allowed you to generate a few new ones!

I suddenly understood that the question at hand was not in fact the humdinger I’d taken it to be, but a no-brainer with a clear answer written in parchment and ink. For while it would certainly be nice for Emma to become an astronaut, movie star or physician one day, these are but secondary goals to that of watching her grow into a kind, compassionate individual. And so I delivered my answer with confidence and resolve. “Emma, when you grow up I want you to be a mensch [good person].” 

Of course, my revelation was hardly profound. The edict of raising menschlich [mensch-like] children is interwoven throughout the Torah and Talmudic thought. It’s just that, caught up in the stresses of 21st century family life, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term goals we hold for our children that transcend diplomas and graduate degrees.

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Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? was released by Broadway Books in 2008. Her website is sharonestroff.com.

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