Let's be honest, self-reflection is tough. Given the choice of mulling over the virtues and vices of the latest American Idol contestants or pondering those of ourselves, we'd pick the former without skipping a beat.
But we Jews are not about to get off so easily -- especially since we are currently in the midst of the Omer, a 49-day countdown that began on the second night of Passover and will culminate with the celebration of Shavuot, when we commemorate God's gift of the Torah to the ancient Israelites. This seven-week period is, like the spring in which it arrives, a journey of growth and renewal.
According to the mystical Jewish tradition, during the cycle of the Omer, it is considered a mitzvah to take a hard look at ourselves and objectively examine how we size up in light of the seven essential drives and traits of the human heart: discipline, kindness, compassion, humility, leadership, endurance and bonding. And no, it is no coincidence that we have seven weeks to analyze seven dimensions -- in tackling one each week, the theory goes, by the time Shavuot arrives, we'll be renewed and invigorated, ready to accept the Torah again and let it infuse our lives with meaning.
But we Jewish parents have an added responsibility on our plates -- that of preparing our kids to one day do the same. So, even if your family has yet to get started on its requisite spiritual spring-cleaning, it's not too late. Here are some suggestions for planting the seeds of the seven emotional attributes in your children, ensuring they bloom for many Omer counts to come.
DISCIPLINE (GEVURAH): Our goal as Jewish parents is not to raise kids who behave out of fear of punishment, but who exhibit self-discipline based on a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, right from wrong. The trick here is to approach discipline as an opportunity to teach and empower our kids rather than squelch and subdue them. For example, instead of exiling your child to his room as retribution for teasing his sister about her outfit, have him help you come up with an appropriate consequence for his behavior-like folding and putting away his sister's clean laundry for a week. If his suggestions are blatantly lenient, explain that you can either arrive at a reasonable consequence together or you will determine one independently.
LOVING-KINDNESS (CHESED): Since even the most loving of little ones will require gentle nudges toward maximizing their chesed potential, we can encourage acts of loving-kindness in our children by establishing a climate of caring and helpfulness at home. We can do this by recognizing and praising unsolicited good deeds, and providing opportunities for children to show chesed within the community by taking them, for example, on a Sunday afternoon visit to a nursing home to play games with the residents. Should your kids need extra encouragement to exercise the benevolence in their hearts, create a good-deeds chart that tracks chesed-like behavior both within the home and outside of it, and display it where your kids will see it everyday.
COMPASSION (TIFERET): Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of "A Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer," describes tiferet as a combined force of love and discipline. Perhaps the most tangible representations of tiferet for children and adults alike, then, are acts of tzedakah and tikkun olam (repairing the world). In the coming weeks, suggest to your children that they put a small portion of their allowance in the pushke before Shabbat begins, donate a few gently used toys to the needy and pick up trash before they play at the local playground. Such acts, which can be added to the aforementioned good-deeds chart, will infuse your kids with a lasting sense of global compassion and responsibility.
HUMILITY (HOD): Unfortunately, many contemporary kids score unsettlingly low on the humility scale, thanks to the modern parental misnomer that sky-high self-esteem is a prerequisite for children's survival. While self-esteem is most certainly beneficial, misleading our children about their abilities- i.e., "you are the greatest soccer player EVER!"-- sets them up to be disappointed when the world does not respond accordingly. So, instead of insisting your little goalie just played the game of his life (when you both know he let that last point slip right through his legs), make a comment like, "It is true that you lost focus at the end and you should work on that for next time, but you put forward lots of effort and showed great sportsmanship, and I'm proud of you for that."
LEADERSHIP (MALCHUT): Letting up on the empty praise doesn't entail losing sight of our children's true gifts. To the contrary, it is our responsibility as parents to recognize and nurture our kids' strengths (whether or not they are considered "strengths" by modern societal standards). By taking the time to unearth and nourish the seeds of potential that God planted in our children, we help cultivate the malchut within them. So the next time your CEO-in-the-making approaches you with an idea for a club or invention, help her ride the entrepreneurial wave by assisting with the research and planning. Even you might be surprised with the result!
ENDURANCE (NETZACH): A likely offshoot of the self-esteem movement gone awry is the modern maternal myth that it's our parental responsibility to keep our children happy 24/7. Clearly I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't be concerned with our kids' happiness or that we let them be pummeled by life in the name of thickening their skin. But positioning ourselves as emotional buffers between our kids and disappointment is not the answer either. Only by stepping back and giving our children room to take the occasional fall will we arm them with the netzach they need to stand up, brush themselves off and rejoin the game all the stronger.
BONDING (YESOD): "Bonding is the foundation of life," says Rabbi Jacobson. Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle of modern family life rarely leaves time for just cuddling up on the couch with our kids and jabbering about nothing. Yet, research shows that parent-child moments -- without a predetermined purpose and destination -- are among the experiences that gear our kids with the security and stability they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. Since, just like the 49 days of the Omer, childhood is fleeting, seize the opportunity to snuggle when you can-and no sneaking in trips to the laundry room!