How to raise a mensch

Cultivating your child's ethical and spiritual growth.


Parents want children to be healthy, happy, successful, and safe, but the core of what many of us want most is for our children to be “nice”: We want them to be kind, decent human beings who are compassionate and empathic. We want our children to thrive. The Search Institute, an organization devoted to adolescent well-being, uses the term thriving to refer to a teen who “not only grows and flourishes as an individual, but also contributes to family, community, and society.” They write that “thriving youth show evidence not only of the absence of negative behaviors but also of indicators of positive development, such as school engagement, commitment to helping others, positive adult relationships, self-esteem, overcoming adversity, and valuing diversity.” They may not use this word, but I think they are talking about mensches.

Mensch is a Yiddish word that literally means “a human being,” but it implies a person with a strong moral character. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, said a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” The key to being a real mensch, he continues, is “nothing less than character: rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.” What does it take to raise a mensch? I think it involves attending to a child’s moral and spiritual growth.

Anyone who has spent time with a two- or three-year-old knows that they have a sense of wonder, an appreciation for nature, a delightful spontaneity, and a creative imagination. They want to know why the sky is blue, where the flowers come from, why that man is in a wheelchair, where they were before they were born, and why pets and people have to die. They can seem endlessly curious about the world around them.

As they get older, they are faced with ever more complex questions. Any of us who has discussed 9/11, the Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or a relative with cancer with our elementary school and older children knows that they are not immune from trying to make sense of suffering. They have the same questions we do: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is life unfair? Why is there hate? Why do some good people have to die young?

Many of today’s parents do not want to force our children into our own religious beliefs. Often that’s because we have negative memories of being forced to sit through stifling church or synagogue experiences when we were children. But whether we eventually return to an organized religious community to offer our children a structure for moral values and meaning, or choose to raise our children without a religious community, our children will need our help with these questions.

In a beautiful passage in his 1979 book Faith and Belief, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a well-known world religions scholar, wrote:

Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best, it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service; a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive; and face others with cheerful charity.

This is a very tall order, and one that I’m not sure many people, including religious leaders, attain, especially that part about the ability to face catastrophe unperturbed. But it is a lovely goal if one thinks about equipping one’s child with that kind of peace, confidence, joy, and stability in approaching life.

That is why thinking about how to raise spiritually healthy children should be a goal for all parents, not just those who practice a religion themselves. Faith is not the same as subscribing to a specific set of beliefs or religious teachings or participating in a faith-based community. One can nurture a child’s faith and spirit without belonging to a faith tradition, although, for many of us, faith traditions provide a community and a context for a child’s faith development. You do not have to be religious to affirm that, as a parent, you have the responsibility to guide your children in their search for meaning, in their understanding of how to make ethical decisions, and in answering their “big questions.”

Modeling healthy, ethical behaviors makes a difference. Dr. Robert Coles wrote in The Moral Intelligence of Children that what is most important to children is observing the important adults in their lives: “the witness of our lives, our ways of being with others and speaking to them and getting on with them—all that taken in slowly, cumulatively, by our own sons and daughters. . . . [I]n the long run of a child’s life, the unselfconscious moments that are what we think of simply as the unfolding events of the day and the week turn out to be the really powerful and persuasive times, morally.”

How we respond to the “big questions” that children ask is part of their faith development. Authoritarian parents often supply children with the answers, cutting off discussion or telling them what to believe. But “Affirming Parents”—the subject of my new book, What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know—try to encourage their child’s sense of faith and wonder and understand that these questions are an opportunity for dialogue and discussions, not lectures. Parents can ask, “Well, what do you think?” rather than rushing in with answers. Moral reasoning is enhanced when parents ask their children questions to discuss their approach to a situation or question. Affirming Parents acknowledge the mysteries of life (“No one knows for sure”) while sharing parts of the answers they have found helpful (“It comforts me to believe in heaven”), rather than insisting on shared beliefs. A Jewish preschool has this slogan, which appeals to me: “A child is not a cup to be filled, but a light to be kindled.”

I am indebted to Anita Hall, who was the director of religious education at our church when my daughter was in preschool. One of the children asked Anita one day, “Who is God?” What Anita shared with the class that day has always stayed with me as the right answer for our family. She said that “God is the happiness that is inside our hearts.” It still seems to me like perfect preschool theology, and it speaks to many adults as well.

Even complex ethical principles can be translated into language children can understand. A children’s version of the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, adapted from Beginning Unitarian Universalism by Mary Ann Moore and Helena Chapin, offers a great example:

  • Each and every person is important.
  • All people should be treated fairly and kindly.
  • We should accept one another and keep on learning together.
  • Each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.
  • All persons should have a say about the things that concern them.
  • We should work together for a peaceful, fair, and free world.
  • We should care for our planet earth, the home we share with all living things.

What core values do you want to share with your children and teenagers? Does your family life reflect those values? As Kahlil Gibran wrote almost one hundred years ago, “Your daily life is your temple and your religion.”

Parents often shy away from discussions about ultimate questions or ethical principles because they mistakenly believe that their children are too young to understand them. It is important to honor your children’s questions and to take them seriously. That means you first need to think about what it is you believe. It is helpful to share your doubts and questions and offer your children the answers as you know and understand them, but affirming parents know it is best to encourage conversation and dialogue with their children.

These types of conversations are not just about the big questions of life and faith but also about moral decision making, respect, empathy, and justice. Just as with sex and drugs, there are “teachable moments” that arise every day to discuss moral issues with your children about your family’s ethics and values. The news, television, movies, and their own experiences at school provide you with seemingly endless moments to address your family’s values about such issues as diversity, fairness, tolerance, and equality.

Barbara Levi-Berliner, my colleague and a social worker, tells all her parenting groups, “Children are perceivers, not interpreters.” In other words, they pick up almost everything going on in their environment but often do not understand what they perceive. She told me the story of a five-year-old girl who had gone from being delightful to being a holy terror at home. When she asked the girl’s mother if anything had changed at home, the mother responded, “No, nothing has changed. Oh, well, I am five months pregnant—but there’s no way she knows that yet.” Barbara suggested to this mom that she and her husband talk to the little girl about becoming a big sister; once they shared the news and started including their daughter in preparations for the new baby, the difficult behavior stopped. Her daughter knew something important was going on in the family, and she needed to be let in on it.

But in their larger world, children are often exposed to issues long before we are ready for them to be. Nonetheless, once they go to preschool or kindergarten or turn on the television instead of a parent-approved video, it’s difficult if not impossible to protect them from the world. Leaving church one day, I overheard a discussion in which a mother asked her eight-year-old son what they had talked about in Sunday school. Her son said, “Terrorists.” The mother, looking worried, asked, “Honey, what is a terrorist?” He replied, “Someone who likes visiting other countries.” She answered, with great relief in her voice, “No, honey, that is a tourist.” But he had indeed heard the word terrorist somewhere, maybe even at home.

Parents at my talks on sexuality education often ask me how they can protect their child’s innocence. “Surely,” they say to me, “you agree that children receive sexualized messages too early today.” Yes, children are bombarded by sexually exploitative messages perhaps more than ever before. But it is a myth to think that you can protect your child completely. You can turn off the television, but there’s not much you can do about the advertisements in the newspapers or the billboards that they also may see. If you take your child to the grocery store, in the checkout line he or she will see the covers of the women’s magazines. Not only do these magazines often show women in various states of undress, but they often feature cover story headlines such as “Top Ten Sex Secrets Men Wish You Knew.” And then there are the tabloids a little closer to the cashier. My favorite headline ever in one of those blared to my then seven-year-old, “Lesbian Aliens Impregnate Oprah.” Unless you can keep your children locked inside your carefully protected home, they are likely to be exposed to such messages over and over.

Your job as a parent is to help mediate these messages and communicate your family values. Rather than ignoring them, use them as teachable moments to give your child a little bit of information or to share your values. “Honey, it makes me uncomfortable to see grown women dressed in tiny outfits. Why do you think she is dressed this way?” “Sweetie, wasn’t that headline silly?”

These discussions about moral quandaries and issues are also a way to help your children develop the ability to make ethical decisions for themselves. A mixture of limits and freedom to make age-appropriate choices is the foundation for a lifetime of moral decision making.

So, how do we raise mensches? Through modeling ethical behaviors ourselves, talking with our children about justice issues, teaching them to treat all people with dignity and respect (and treating our children and others that way), and encouraging their spiritual, moral, and faith development.

What parents can do

1. Listen to your children. Showing them empathy helps them develop their own sense of compassion. All people want empathy, even children. They want to know that they have been heard and that you respect what they’re feeling. This can be done through nonverbal communication in your facial expression or by giving your child a hug or touch, but it can also be done by verbally letting your child know that he or she has been heard.

In Raising Children Compassionately, Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg asks people to think about how to respond to a child who says, for example, “Nobody likes me.” Some parents jump in too fast with reassurance (“Well, that is not true; you’ve had friends in the past. I am sure you will get more friends”) or advice (“Maybe if you’d talk differently to your friends, your friends would like you more”). Instead, he recommends that parents say something empathic, such as, “So it sounds like you’re feeling sad because you are not having very much fun with your friends.” Modeling compassion and empathy in the adult relationships in your home teaches your children as well.

2. Learn from your children. One of the central teachings I have learned from my children is the importance of living in the moment. One beautiful spring day when my daughter was about four and I wanted us to go for a “signs of spring” walk. I drove to a park near our house. We stepped out of the car, and she immediately saw a rock that she liked. We stopped. We went another two feet. There was a stick to pick up. We took another step or two, and there was a dandelion to be looked at, smelled, its petals to be pulled out. I found myself getting impatient; I wanted to take her to the bridge deeper into the park, I wanted to get some exercise, and we were supposed to be on a walk, not a step-and-stop! Two more steps and she saw a ladybug on a stick, moving slowly, glinting in the sun. We watched it inch from one end to the other. Another step, dirt to run through her fingers. A half hour later, we still had not made it to the official beginning of the path. And then, of course, I got it: This was our “signs of spring” walk.

3. Establish family rituals. These can include moments of gratitude before meals or blessings at bedtime, as well as seasonal observances such as your faith community’s holiday services or how you celebrate birthdays and report cards. What family traditions do you celebrate in your home?

Bedtime rituals can include parents offering a special way of saying good night and an affirmation of love that children can learn to count on, and that can be sent in messages or on the telephone as they begin to spend time away from home. I devised this nightly blessing when my daughter was only a few weeks old: “May the angels watch over you tonight. May God bless you. I love you.”

I have said it every night since to my children. I have sent it in email messages, whispered it on the phone when they have been at sleepovers and camp, and even on cell phone answering services during semesters abroad. I have said it to them before medical procedures, first days of school, and a driving test. These simple words they have heard all their lives comfort them; they comfort me in the offering, and connect our love to something bigger than we are. You may want to write such a blessing for your family. You do not need to believe in God or angels or even prayer; you can address the universe or the sacred within all of us, or just concentrate on your shared love. You could develop this special saying together as a family project.

Prayers with your children can nurture your child’s sense of spirituality. A thirteenth-century German theologian named Meister Eckardt wrote that the only prayer we ever need is “thank you.” More recently Anne Lamott said that the only prayers we need are “thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” I have heard people quote Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman as saying that the only prayers children need are “thanks, gimme, wow, and oops.”

4. Celebrate traditions in community. I believe in the power of an organized faith community to offer meaning and support in your and your children’s lives. Although we can pray alone, it is in community that we find support and opportunities for action. Hillary Rodham Clinton made popular the African expression “It takes a village to raise a child.” Often the faith community can be such a village for parents.

My partner and I began to search for a faith community when our daughter was about three. I come from a fairly secular Jewish family; his family is Roman Catholic. We had developed our traditions around meals; we used to joke that “we ate our religion.” In other words, we had Rosh Hashanah dinner with chicken soup and matzo balls, the seven-fish Italian Christmas Eve dinner, latkes at Hannukah, ham at Easter, and so on. But we also recognized that we wanted our children to know about both of their religious heritages and to feel that they belonged to a religious tradition. Interfaith couples of any mix often need to consciously decide which faith community might best fit with their family; others go back and forth between two. For us, Unitarian Universalism has provided a faith community that honors our family heritages and affirms our values.

Modeling the role of faith in our homes and in our lives is important. For those of us who belong to faith communities, that means attending services regularly, saying prayers before meals and bedtime, participating in service projects as a family, and discussing our faith. These simple behaviors set a foundation for the role of religion in family life and give our children a solid religious home. Although they may leave the faith community in middle or late adolescence, many children will return to it (or choose a different one) when they have their own families.

5. Involve your children in community service. Children can be taught that spirituality, ethical treatment, and social action are intimately connected, whether or not your family is “religious.”

Children learn by doing. Involving your children in service to others is an important part of raising them to be caring. Even the youngest children can accompany you to a soup kitchen or on a visit to an elderly neighbor or family member. Signing your family up to feed people at a homeless shelter or helping with a Habitat for Humanity build provides opportunities for family connection and service. Barbara Levi-Berliner’s family has spent every Thanksgiving since her children were tiny serving meals at a soup kitchen. Her family eats their Thanksgiving dinner the next day. My children still remember the years we spent wrapping holiday presents for people with aids. Investigate the opportunities for community service in your area.

The list of possible volunteer opportunities for upper elementary school children and teenagers is nearly endless: they can tutor younger children, offer free babysitting services, collect food, run recycling drives, assist in food pantries and soup kitchens, paint murals in vacant lots, plant trees and community gardens, and organize neighborhood cleanup projects. They can volunteer at shelters, nursing homes, and hospitals. They can work on fundraisers or even organize them: hold bake sales, car washes, auctions; collect pennies, books, and games; and put on talent shows. Religious institutions often provide volunteer activities for youth, but so do 4-H, scouting, and boys’ and girls’ clubs.

The landscape for twenty-first-century parenting is undeniably challenging, but there is a lot of good news today. Relationships between most parents and their children have changed for the better. Although we are working more hours than our own parents did, we are actually spending more time with our children—more time teaching, playing with, and caring for our children—than our parents did. Our children are healthier than any other generation of children in history. And as a result of our improved parenting, our children and teenagers are behaving more responsibly than have recent generations of young people: Alcohol use is down; teen pregnancy rates, STD rates, and abortion rates are down; high school dropout rates are down.

According to Millennials Rising, children born after 1982 are closer to their parents, more respectful of their parents’ values, more likely to recognize the importance of education and community service, and more respectful of cultural norms. They are more likely to reject stereotypes by sex, race, gender, or sexual orientation. They sound like mensches to me.

Adapted from What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know: Facing Today’s Challenges with Wisdom and Heart, ©2008 by Debra W. Haffner. Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press, 18 East 48th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017. For more information about Debra Haffner and her books, visit

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