It used to be (in those elusive good old days!) that the goal of parenting was to raise a mensch. If our children were thoughtful and kind, considerate and caring, we could rest easy. We had done our jobs (Or, to put it more accurately, the Almighty had answered our prayers!)
But times seem to have changed. And being a mensch no longer appears a worthy goal. A college résumé needs to detail unusual internships in exotic locales. Oh – and of course only an Ivy League will do.
A job résumé must feature that Ivy League education eagerly pursued above – for both grad and undergrad, the appropriate clubs joined, habitats for humanity built and consciousness raised in a small town in Africa.
I acknowledge that not all of these activities are foolish per se. Some of them might even help develop the desired consideration and caring. But I think it may depend on the goal. Although behavior modification is definitely supported by Jewish sources and we believe that sometimes even if we initially do things for the wrong reasons we may come to do them for the right ones, this is not always the case.
If our actions are only self-serving (and résumé boosting) we may lose out on the actual growth opportunities.
And if our children do a semester abroad or a summer fellowship overseas, it will only broaden their character if they make that their focus.
There are certainly many external pressures these days and perhaps even a sense of competition for scarce resources. But I think our children’s goals, even as they enter adulthood, depend strongly on the messages they received at home.
Were we happy if they treated their sister kindly but didn’t get the highest grade on the test? If they helped the neighbor’s special needs child in their spare time but had no musical talents or abilities? If they made dinner and did chores around the house but didn’t excel at any particular sport?
Our minds tell us yes but how about our emotions? Our actions?
How about our neighbors? Can we hold on (with pleasure) to the fact that we have raised a mensch when our neighbor mentions that their son just got into Harvard law school? Or a prestigious job on Wall Street? Or built a mansion in Beverly Hills? (Just for example!)
It’s not that a mensch couldn’t accomplish these things as well. It’s just less likely to be his or her focus. And sometimes, not always but certainly sometimes, menschlike behavior just doesn’t get you there. As Lily Tomlin once said, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat.”
We all want a lot for our children, everything in fact. But we need to establish priorities and the priorities we establish will definitely impact our children’s future – no matter how much our teenagers protest to the contrary. So we need to proceed with caution – and not just determine the desired goals but make sure that we are actually walking that walk.