We learn how to treat other people by living in a family. How does Mom treat Dad? How do our parents treat us? How are we encouraged, permitted and prohibited to treat our siblings and parents? Is it okay to scream at others when we're frustrated? Is it okay to read at the dinner table, enter the bedroom without knocking or grab the best piece of chicken before anyone else does?
Our sense of appropriate social behavior is developed through our daily interactions with our family members and most profoundly, through our interactions with our parents.
As a parent, you probably consider it important that your child learns to be respectful toward others. After all, disrespectful behaviors will get him into trouble at school and lose him some friends. If he's rude and insensitive, then he may have trouble forming healthy intimate relationships later on in life. A mensch, on the other hand, is someone who will be an asset in the workplace and community and someone who will probably enjoy successful relationships of every kind. He shows respect toward others and is rewarded with kind behavior in return.
The Torah has given us a powerful teaching tool that can help all kids become more sensitive to the inner world of other people.
How can you help your child become truly respectful -- sensitive, humble, appreciative and in control of himself? Of course some kids are born with these traits pretty much in tact, but most have a long way to go in order to manifest them under stressful conditions (like not getting what they want exactly when they want it). Some kids are born at the polar opposite end of the respectful scale, carrying genes that make them explosive, rude and insensitive. Is there any hope for this group? Can they ever learn how to tune in to others enough to maintain harmonious relationships?
People Have Feelings
The Torah has given us a powerful teaching tool that can help all kids become more emotionally intelligent and sensitive to the inner world of other people. It works like this: when I understand that my insulting or careless words or actions actually cause you pain, I will become kinder and more conscious in my interactions with you. I don't want to cause you pain. However, if I am completely unaware of my impact on you, then I will just continue doing what I do and saying what I say. Like a speed boat that makes big waves in the water without really noticing or caring, I would just zoom along doing what's good for me without noticing the ripple effect of my actions on you or others in my path.
If you want your kids to have a higher degree of sensitivity and its corresponding higher degree of respectful behavior, you'll have to teach it to them. The Torah's teaching tool is the mitzvah of honoring parents, and it will provide you with a fail proof curriculum.
Raising Emotional Intelligence
Honoring parents is all about tuning into others. Parents are the most important people in that child's life. His very life depends upon these special folks. You'd think that children would naturally feel deep appreciation toward their parents and desire to make them happy. Oddly enough, it doesn't usually happen like that.
Children need to be taught how to get out of themselves and be grateful. It doesn't happen by itself.
Part of the reason is that children are born self-centered. Unless they are specifically educated out of that stance, they may remain there forever. Moreover, parents actually teach their kids to be self-centered. It happens accidentally. Parents love their kids so they want to give them everything. They give and give and give, to the utmost of their ability. And kids take and take and take.
For instance, at the dinner table an eight-year-old discovers that she is lacking a spoon. "I don't have a spoon," she says to Mom. Mom apologizes, hops up from the table and fetches a spoon for her able-bodied child. Mom's behavior, while totally appropriate for responding to a toddler strapped in her high chair, conveys a clear message to her eight-year-old daughter: Parents are here to serve children. "You sit. I'll get you what you need." The child learns, "You give; I take."
What would need to happen in order for this child to say to herself, "I see I don't have a spoon. I won't bother Mommy to get it for me because she's already tired from working all day, making this meal and setting the table. I'll just get it myself." Indeed, is it even possible for a young child to think such thoughts?
Yes! Children can be trained to think of others, to imagine what they might be going through. They can be trained to be appreciative instead of demanding. Instead of being focused solely on themselves and their own feelings and needs, they can learn to look outside of themselves to really see others and respond to them appropriately. This is trained through the mitzvah of kibud av v'em, through teaching children how to honor their parents.
There are many specific laws that fall under the mitzvah of honoring parents. Each one helps the child to develop self-control, humility, appreciation and, above all, sensitivity. By honoring parents for 20 developmental years, a child becomes a person who has self-control, humility, appreciation and sensitivity: in other words, a real mensch. The laws of kibud av v'em help a child to develop respect for himself at the same time as he develops respect for others; he will not lower himself to behave badly toward others or insult their dignity.
Able to express a full range of thoughts and feelings respectfully, the child who honors her parents is in no way suppressed. She is her full, beautiful self and a pleasure to live with -- even during her teenage years! Chances are excellent that she will have a good relationship with her parents throughout adulthood and will pass what she has learned on to her own children. The laws of honoring parents ultimately enhance one's spiritual, emotional and social well-being. What greater gift can you give your children than to teach them how to fulfill the fifth of the Ten Commandments?
In Part Two, we will examine the specific laws of honoring parents and look at strategies for teaching them to your youngsters.