Bringing up a Mensch: How to Raise Respectful Children

Last year, our eleven-year-old son joined the Boy Scouts. One Motzaei Shabbos, soon thereafter, he began, on his own, to set up for Havdalah. I truly appreciated this display of consideration, and I complimented him. He cheerfully replied, “A Scout helps other people at all times!” (The first Scout law.)

The scouting was already paying off.

Yet, something about my son’s response didn’t sit right with me: after seven years of formal Jewish education and more than ten years of general chinuch, why was my son quoting the Boy Scout Oath instead of Torah in support of his behavior?

My husband and I take seriously the obligation to train our children to be respectful, because we want each one to be a responsible, considerate human being—a mensch.

We all want our children to be menschen.

It seems to me that there are four reasons why kids are disrespectful. Knowing these reasons can be an opportunity for us to identify where our challenges lie in helping our kids grow into menschen.

Busy and Tired
Raising “menschlich” kids takes time and energy; there is no getting around that. Unfortunately, contemporary life is very fast-paced. Oftentimes, both parents are overstretched and harried. Our hectic schedules can leave us too drained to put in the effort necessary to properly raise our kids. Children are often left to their own devices to figure out how to behave. Many parents expect their kids to understand their fatigue and be cooperative, but this doesn’t generally work. Children need behavioral guidance.

Tired parents either give in to whining, or they shout at their kids. They are reactive rather than responsive.

Busy parents may also feel guilty about not spending time with their kids, not having enough quantity time. To alleviate their guilt, they try to play “nice guy” whenever they are together. They buy whatever their children want, excusing their incessant demands as “normal kid behavior.” They let their children interrupt and speak disrespectfully. These parents think they are using their quality time well, when in truth they are priming their children to become selfish adults who lack self-control.

If we are too busy or tired, we need to slow down, get sleep and take charge of parenting our children.

The Media Breeds Disrespect
To parents who allow their children to watch movies and television, a warning: the media feeds disrespect to our kids. Watch any children’s show geared to kids over the age of five. (No, don’t!) There is a common theme: smart kids, stupid adults; it’s funny that way. But just because it’s funny, doesn’t mean it’s right.

The more chutzpah our kids watch, the more desensitized they become to concepts such as derech eretz and kibbud av va’eim. Watching these shows, kids can absorb the idea that impertinence is cool, and they will invariably try to imitate the “cool” character or characters. If we don’t catch them and point out the problematic behavior, they’ll continue to emulate their “hero” until their whole persona can “scream” chutzpah without them even realizing it.

Giving kids access to the media (TV, movies, et cetera) is similar to taking them to the library. We can go to extremes: decide to never go to the library, because not all the reading material is suitable, or just let the kids roam free and check out whatever books they want. The more time-consuming approach is to accompany one’s children to the library, help them choose what we deem appropriate for our home and, as they grow, explain how to make good choices.

Will our children always make the choices we trained them to make? Maybe not. But that does not excuse us from our duty to guide them.

We need to be aware of what our children are watching. We need to reject impertinence and chutzpah so prevalent in the media if we hope to give our children the clear message that disrespect is unacceptable.

Not Enough Real-Life Examples
It is our responsibility to ensure that our children are in environments that promote respect. Home, school and extracurricular activities should be where our children learn from real life what “menschlichkeit” entails. We cannot show disrespect toward our spouses and expect our children to be respectful. Moreover, we need to set age-appropriate expectations for sibling interactions and guide our children toward appropriate behaviors. Knocking on doors before entering, saying “please” and “thank you” and no name-calling are all behaviors that should be non-negotiable.

At school, it is unfair to expect a child to speak respectfully to a teacher who continually berates his or her students. We, as adults, have the capacity to respond respectfully even when our surroundings are not supportive and even to those who disrespect us. But to assume that a child should do so is unrealistic. That is an unfair test, which he cannot possibly be expected to pass.

Also, if our child witnesses repeated disrespect with no real change-induced consequences, he gets the message that being respectful is not that important. For how many days will seven-year-old David observe his peers refusing to follow the morah’s directive and getting away with it before he begins to lose respect for the morah? The principal, as well as teachers and administrators, should be models of menschlichkeit.

At one school assembly, the principal arranged for a visiting child to entertain the students by playing his violin. As the child began to play the instrument, it became clear that he was not ready for prime time. The situation could have given way to taunts and mockery, but it didn’t. This is because the principal had situated himself right in front of the auditorium so all the students could see him. He faced the violinist, and his body language said, “This is beautiful music!” The assembly became a lesson in derech eretz. The message was profound: every individual is deserving of respect, and anything less is not tolerated here.

Outside of home and school, our children are often involved in extra-curricular activities. It’s our job to know the attitudes and policies of those at the top. Little League, self-defense classes, Boy/Girl Scouts and camp are places where our kids can experience menschlichkeit in action. Little League coaches can teach kids how not to be sore losers, making it very clear that games are more about sportsmanship than they are about winning. Their encouraging messages such as “good job” and “nice try” set an example of how to speak to teammates and opponents. In the summer camp where I work, awards are presented to campers and staff who show outstanding kindness and consideration for others. This creates an environment where kids strive to emulate these behaviors.

When our children are in environments that promote derech eretz, they learn respect the way they learn best— from real-life examples.

Lacking Self-Respect
In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, six-year-old Calvin informs his father of what the polls say about Dad’s popularity. In the hopes of getting what he wants, or perhaps simply getting under Dad’s skin, Calvin reports his “findings” that Dad is not faring too well and should be concerned in light of the latest survey. Dad’s response is one of indifference, and Calvin is left to figure out a different route to “control” Dad.

Parenting is not a popularity contest. When we have a healthy sense of self, we do not base our decisions on our children’s evaluations of us during momentary outbursts, as in, “You won’t buy me an iPod! I hate you! You are the meanest parents in the world!”

If we find ourselves caving in to outbursts, or placating our kids in order to avoid a scene, it may be that we base much of our sense of worth on the opinions of others, including those of our children. If this rings true, we need to work on building up our own sense of self.

If we, as parents, are unsure of our intrinsic value, we may not be emotionally strong enough to set limits and follow through with consequences.

We owe it to ourselves to work on having a positive self-image so we can build our children’s sense of self-worth and teach them to respect themselves as well as others.

For over twenty years, I have sent my children out into the world each day with the same words: “I love you. Have a great day. Be a mensch!” I have done this knowing that each child would not necessarily behave menschlich that day.

I have done this with the faith that my words will eventually take root in the psyche of my children.

The efforts involved in raising a mensch challenge us to pass on the Torah’s teachings on derech eretz. It is imperative, however, to know where the pitfalls lie and to parent with the determination to avoid those pitfalls. We can raise menschlich kids!

And they will eventually know that the source of respectful behavior is our Torah, not the Boy Scout handbook.

D’vorah Miller is an educator residing in Boston. She earned a degree in therapeutic counseling from MST College in London. She presently works as alumni coordinator for New England NCSY. D’vorah and her husband, Shmuel, run marriage and parenting workshops.


Listen to D’vorah Miller discuss four reasons kids are disrespectful and how to avoid them:

This article was featured in the Winter 2012 issue of Jewish Action.