Building middot, or good character, makes the grade

by Ellie S. Grossman

Academic success is driven into the brains of our children before they tinkle in their first diaper. Although there’s no concrete scientific evidence that education begins in the womb, a hormonal pregnant woman will do just about anything to give her growing fetus the best start in life. It’s not unheard of for an expectant mom to play Mozart to her swollen belly. The hope is that exposure to classical music will increase the likelihood of giving birth to a musical prot ég é who can play Chopsticks and suck on a pacifier all at the same time.

When a parent brings the bundle of joy home from the hospital, the sleepy newborn is greeted with more black and white abstract images than a Rorschach inkblot test at a psychiatrist’s office. Before the infant can balance his wobbly head, he is plopped in a bouncy seat in front of the television. The exhausted mom dozes on the couch while the toothless viewer watches Baby Einstein videos that stimulate the brain to eventually operate a DVD player and hold a sippy cup simultaneously. Even when away from home and on the road, the curious tot is strapped in a car seat and watches the latest Disney release or stares straight ahead at a blurry mirror and dizzying pictures of bull’s eyes that are attached to the back of the driver’s headrest.

Parents mean well, but it could be that our intellectual demands are the reason why some toddlers give up naps in the first place. Nobody snoozes in nursery school anymore, except maybe the teachers, and besides, a nursery refers to the place at the maternity ward anyway. Nowadays, preschools, also known as early education centers, boast as many computers as they do wooden blocks. To stay ahead of the competition, many pre-kindergarten programs offer foreign language classes as well. When Sari attended Jewish preschool, in fact, she learned more Spanish than Hebrew.

By the time kindergarten actually rolls around, many children can count to 10 in Spanish and in sign language, but they would rather log onto a computer than print their names. By first grade, students dive right into spelling tests, oral book presentations, and state-required assessment tests that drag on through high school. After Sari’s first week of second grade, she came home from elementary school with a painful callus on her finger because she gripped a No. 2 pencil too long. The standardized tests are so boring, in fact, that students give them nicknames, like “Child-Torture-Before-Summer” for CTBS, which stands for Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Then comes middle school and an onslaught of “challenge” courses, pimples, mood swings, cell phones, and sooner or later a tutor for college-entrance exams. In high school, teenagers push themselves to graduate magna cum laude, get into an Ivy League college, and gain a competitive edge in the workforce before they even nail their first summer internship. After all, if they want to decorate their dorm room like a Pottery Barn catalog, someone has to pay for it.

In my opinion, scholastic achievement is overrated. Many parents put way too much pressure on their children, from preschool to postgraduation. Kids are stressed out, and so are parents. I don’t reward Jack and Sari for perfect report cards, and I don’t take away a privilege if they bring home something less. I expect them to do their best. I also expect them to make mistakes and learn from them.

Sure good grades are important, but book smarts alone won’t get young people very far in life if they lack common sense and social skills. Fortunately, many public and private schools across the country have implemented “character education” in their new and improved curriculums. Students learn how to identify and strengthen their own positive traits, such as responsibility, respect, perseverance, patience, and citizenship that are essential in today’s society.

Character education may be a sign of the times, but the idea of building desirable traits is actually old Jewish wisdom. In fact, Judaism has a word for it –middot — which literally means “measures,” or qualities that bring us closer to God. Although the classroom provides an excellent opportunity for children to learn universal values and ethical behavior, the Jewish sages stress that the real teachers are the parents who provide moral guidance at home.

My kids practice middot everyday without even knowing it. When Jack finds someone’s homework on a desk and turns it into the teacher, he demonstrates middot, or kindness. When he resists beating up his sister after she teases him, he shows middot, or self-control. When Sari blocks the soccer ball from the goalie net, she exercises middot, or courage. When she puts away the sidewalk chalk and bikes in the garage without being asked, she exemplifies middot, or responsibility.

When it comes to middot, the homework is never done. Middot is a lifelong lesson in compassion, truth, diligence, peace of mind, humility, and other positive attributes that help us to become better Jews.

“The Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]

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