By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.
I stopped in my tracks when I saw the words “Mensch Bench” on the playground of my grandson’s school. Knowing the school’s emphasis on instilling values in their students, I wasn’t surprised that the bench was there, but was surprised that a 9-year-old would know the meaning of the word “mensch.”
I asked my grandson what the word mensch meant to him and without hesitation he told me that a mensch is someone who helps others, especially when those who need help don’t know how to ask for it. “The ‘mensch bench’ (might be called the buddy bench in other schools),” he said, “is a place where you could sit if you felt lonely, sad, or just wanted to talk with someone. A mensch would then sit on the bench with you and help you to feel better.”
How impressive and important it is that children at that young an age already understand what it takes to be a mensch, a person of integrity and honor, someone who is empathetic and kind. The most thorough description of mensch that I found was written by Rabbi Neil Kursham, author of Raising Your Child to Be a Mensch: responsibility fused with compassion … a sense that one’s own personal needs and desires are limited by the needs and desires of other people … acts with self-restraint and humility and is sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others.”
To raise a child with these qualities is what most of us want, but how do we do that? As part of our “Roots and Wings: Raising Resilient Children” series, here are some suggestions:
- Role model “mensch-like” behavior. If you’re helping a friend, volunteering at a soup kitchen, giving someone a ride, or knitting scarves for the homeless, talk with your child (or better yet, have them help you when possible) so they understand the reason for your efforts. You are meeting someone else’s needs – helping someone without the expectation of a return.
- Expect “polite” behavior. Saying “please” and “thank you” can go a long way in having others respond positively to you and acknowledge your wishes. Encourage your child to use these phrases as often as possible.
- Be respectful in your conversations with others. Avoid “talking down” to anyone, listen with your whole being.
- Use teachable moments to help your child recognize and feel gratitude for the blessings they have received. Teachable moments work best when a child is confused, curious, or concerned. Help them understand your actions especially when those actions may not make immediate sense to them.
- Role play situations that might require a sympathetic or empathetic response. For example, if one of your child’s friends loses a grandparent, brainstorm some words you can share with them so they can acknowledge what their friend might be feeling.
- Acknowledge the times when it may be difficult to be a mensch. We don’t always choose to do the right thing. How do we bounce back?
- Choose a night of the week when everyone in the family shares a time (during dinner for example) that they have been a mensch. Talk about the feelings one has when being a mensch while also emphasizing the importance of humility.
It takes effort to raise a mensch, but there is no question that any efforts will be well worth it. Keep in mind, that “mensches are people we look up to, but they are never too good to be true.” (Jewish Chronicle, 11/25/2016).
Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.