Becoming a Mensch

Perhaps reflecting some underlying concern American parents have about our methods of child-rearing, every few years a new book appears extolling the virtues of a different ethnic or cultural approach.  Over the past decade we have had Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bebe.”  Added to the list now is Marjorie Ingall’s “Mamaleh Knows Best, What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.”

Chua attributes the impressive number of math and music prodigies the Chinese produce to their model of parenting, which includes coercive strictness, punishment and shaming.  She asserts that Western parents are too worried about their children’s self-esteem while Chinese parents demand perfect grades.  Chinese parents believe their children owe them everything and need to repay them by obeying them and making them proud.  The parents believe they know what is best for their children and override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

Druckerman writes about the “superior” French parents she came to know while living in France, and observes that even good parents are not at the constant service of their children without feeling guilty about it.  She describes the French as thinking of themselves as educating, rather than disciplining their children, believing that babies are taught to wait by not picking them up at night when they cry and limiting snacks.  She agrees with the French belief that American parents lack authority, and that anything goes.

Ingall, a writer for Tablet Magazine and a former parenting columnist for The Forward is not offering a “how to” guide of parenting.  Rather she offers a description of the ideals that she believes have helped Jewish parents – particularly mothers as the historically dominant figure – raise children who are successful, creative, empathetic and independent.  This is a somewhat different image than the one that has gained currency from the work of comedians and novelists such as Woody Allen and Philip Roth, and the heritage of borscht belt comedy that has become part of pop culture.  That picture has been of an over-protective mother promoting guilt and raising neurotic, anxiety ridden children.

Instead, Ingall’s points to traditional values coming from their history, culture and religion that Jewish parents impart to their children.  In particular she cites the practice of bar mitzvah at age thirteen which points to the assertion of independence and taking responsibility for oneself before the community.  She believes that Jewish parenting has been about guiding children to gain the self-control, self-motivation and sense of responsibility they will need to be successful and to face the consequences when they don’t.  She also cites a tradition of questioning authority ingrained in religious texts which encourages thinking for oneself as well as a love of learning rooted in the value placed on education. 

The sensibilities Ingall’s describes are perhaps best portrayed by the writer Calvin Trillin in his essay “Messages from My Father.”  He writes that what most has remained with him is his father’s injunction, “You might as well be a mensch.”  Mensch, which means person or human being, takes on in Yiddish the meaning of a real human being – someone who does the right thing. 

In a real sense the different approaches to child-rearing of many cultures has had the goal of raising a “mensch” embedded in their traditional practices.  The point that gets misses, however, is that these practices are specific to their cultural context and are not always easily transferrable to other settings.  A good example, if anyone has seen it, is “Fiddler on the Roof,” with its depiction of traditional family organization which begins to break down in the face of different ideas and new freedoms.

Children are raised to succeed in a particular society and culture.  Our American culture prizes individualism and success.  It is a competitive society with a focus on individual success rather than on community responsibility.  As in other cultures described, traditional child-rearing practices in this country were quite different than they are today and expressed different values.

The challenge for parents today is to impart their own values to their children in the face of the many social pressures that confront them.  There are different ways to help a child become a “mensch.”