My son Eli was born on Shabbos. As soon as Motzoei Shabbos arrived, my parents came to visit with my other children. We took a walk to the nursery, looking anxiously through the glass window. Bassinets were lined up in rows, filled with blankets of pink and blue. Newborns wailed; their distinct cries filled the air. “Where’s our baby?” the children asked. Finally, we spotted him. His soft brown eyes were wide open. “Oooh!” they exclaimed in delight.
My father motioned for me to step to the side. “Slova Channalah,” he said, “this little neshamah just arrived from Shomayim Above. He came into this world the purest of the pure. He was learning with the malachim and now he is here. Watch over him, shaifeleh, and teach him well.”
I looked at my father and was suddenly aware of this extraordinary mission called “parenting.” We are given these precious neshamos and they truly are a gift from Above. Parenting is not a simple road. There are many detours and challenges along the way. How do we know which direction to take? How do we know how to communicate with our children – to open their hearts, to reach deep within their soul, to create character, to convey values, and to transmit the beauty of our mesorah?
As I have given parenting lectures throughout the world, I have met with parents who have spent hours discussing types of minivans to buy, stroller brands, after-school activities, houses, neighborhoods and summer camps. What I have come to realize is that we rarely take the time to discuss how we will develop a child’s character until we hit a pot hole and there is an obstacle in our way. Why wait until there is a problem? Let’s ask ourselves: What have we done to nurture our children’s ability to be kinder, compassionate, sensitive and more grateful for life’s blessings? Why not contemplate ways to develop middos and character from the beginning?
Each week, when we kindle our Shabbos lights, we daven, “Vezakeini legadel bonim uvnei vonim chachomim unevonim ohavei Hashem yirei Elokim anshei emes zera kodesh baHashem deveikim. Ume’irim es haolam baTorah uvemaasim tovim – Privilege me to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who love Hashem and fear Hashem, people of truth, holy offspring, attached to Hashem, who illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds.”
Raising children is a privilege. This Shabbos tefillah gives us the direction needed as we try to mold our children’s hearts and minds. We ask that Hashem grant us the zechus to bring a generation into this world connected to Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who speak and live truthfully, and who will fill this world with the light of Torah and kindness. We are not speaking here about politeness or manners. We are speaking, instead, about the very essence of our children deep down to their inner core.
Where do we begin?
Children are sponges. They absorb every action, every conversation, and every word exchanged between parents. Even the smallest toddler will take a parent’s phone and mimic the interactions he’s seen and heard. We, parents, are our children’s most effective role models. Greater than any speech about honesty is the moment a child witnesses his parent disclosing the truth about his children’s ages when paying the admission for a Chol Hamoed outing. More powerful than any lecture about kindness is the way a child observes his parents helping one another and giving an extra hand. If we want our children to feel connected to the words in their siddurim and place them in their hearts, it is certainly not enough to say, “Shaah!” and point to the page. Our children need to observe us taking our davening seriously, not allowing others to distract us, and showing that we truly believe in the power of tefillah. Our homes are the most potent classrooms. Of course, schools, yeshivos, rabbeim, moros and principals play major roles in the chinuch of our sons and daughters. But in vain do we send them to study in the best of schools if they return home to meet hypocrisy or indifference to all that is holy.
When we parent our children, we parent ourselves. We are forced to look at the way we speak, dress, interact with others, converse at our Shabbos table, greet Yomim Tovim, and deal with daily challenges. Even the way we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night becomes a lesson for our children.
As a young child, I remember driving with my father over bridges and him purposely taking the lane where he would have to hand the money to the toll person. “Abba,” I once asked, “why don’t you use the other lane? You have exact change anyway. You can just throw the money into the machine.”
My father replied, “Shaifeleh, this is one more way for me to say thank you and give a smile to someone during my day.”
Even the smallest exchange becomes a lesson in greeting others beseiver ponim yafos and making a kiddush Hashem. From the bank teller to the bus driver, sharing a nice word and a kind greeting became an expected part of time spent with my father. Although years have passed, I remain with this life lesson imprinted on my soul. I came to realize that we have a responsibility when we deal with others throughout our day. One kind word, one warm smile, or a simple thank you can warm a heart and help a person feel appreciated. It is not simply the big moments that count. Rather, my father taught me that those little instances we often think of as unimportant are truly the sparks that light up this world. And, of course, it is not just strangers or friends whose lives we touch. Just as crucial are the family members we live with and too often take for granted.
Sometimes we impress upon our children the importance of chesed to strangers while overlooking the numerous kindnesses we can extend to each other in our own homes. Making a good child great must include the awareness that chesed begins with family. Many children are nice to “the world” but terribly mean to siblings. They use harsh words, knock them with one-liners, or are indifferent to hurt feelings. There are those who spend their days and nights helping others while their own family is left wanting.
A woman recently confided to me that her husband is out each night helping various organizations and spending time talking to kids who need a listening ear. “What he doesn’t realize is that his own children are waiting at home, hungry for their father’s attention.”
While we must of course set aside time to help others in need, we must also realize that our families are priorities in our lives. Kids hungrily await attention and feel as if they are the last ones on a long list. Having limitless patience for others but none for one’s own children is a sad lesson for children to learn. We have but a limited time before children deal with long school hours, are away at dorms in Yeshiva, or are simply more interested in spending time with their friends. How many parents have voiced their regrets to me, wishing for a “do over” so that they could have more time to love and laugh with their kids?
Even casual moments become tremendous opportunities for chesed. One Sunday, we took our children to a local pizza shop. A family was seated at the table next to us. Their six-year-old son accidentally spilled his Snapple bottle. His drink spilled on to his plate and his pizza was inedible.
“Now look what you did!” he was told. “Can’t you ever sit normally? Why do you always have to spill? We can’t take you anywhere!”
The little boy’s eyes filled with tears.
“Yeah,” added his sister. “You always make a mess.”
The rest of the children chimed in with hurtful comments.
How much kinder it would have been to simply guide the little boy to a paper towel rack and instruct him to clean up his spill. No shame. No humiliation. Accidents happen, and when they do, let’s act responsibly. Siblings would learn tolerance and know that we do not embarrass those who make a mistake. Isn’t that a greater life lesson?
Instead, this child remains with his parent’s stinging comments ringing in his ears. His siblings have learned that it is okay to hurt others – especially family – with words.
Greatness comes when we are aware that our homes are indeed classrooms and that each day brings tremendous opportunity to create a legacy to live by. Let us resolve to teach our children to be sensitive and kind, both in word and in deed. The lesson begins with us.