Modern Mishpocha: ‘How do we raise good kids?’

By Jenny T. Burns

Before we begin. I want to let you know, in case you need to hear it, that you are an incredible parent and member of your family. You are trying your best.

Okay, let’s dive into some depths.

I am white.

I have white privilege.

If this remark rubs you the wrong way, please sit with those uncomfortable thoughts for a moment and ask yourself, why. Maybe you’re tired of hearing about skin colour and privilege. Maybe you’re amazed that this conversation of race, equity, equality, and treatment is seeping into every aspect of our lives. Maybe you’re simply curious to see why I’m bringing up race in a Modern Mishpocha column. It’s okay to ask these questions and I encourage you to get curious!

Let’s start again, I’m white (which comes with inherent privileges), I am also a woman (who identifies as a woman), and a Jew. I, like many of you fabulous readers, fall into the magical and meaningful Venn diagram of intersectionality where all the facets of my identity help inform the other facets. Now, seeing as this is Modern Mishpocha, let’s focus on the Jewish part, which I suspect you can all relate to.

It’s strange, isn’t it? If you’re a white Jew then you are privileged and marginalized simultaneously. You know what antisemitism feels like, so you have a compassionate window into what our friends of colour might feel in their daily marginalized experiences. At the same time, you may not experience prejudice or microaggressions on a daily basis, because you are not visibly a minority.

I don’t say all this to put you down. I say this to highlight something valuable. As Jewish parents, we constantly ask: how can I raise my kids to be ‘good people’? I ask this question daily. I ask that question of myself when I fight my societal training to comment on my son’s pink toy penguin (not because I think pink and boys don’t mix, but because I, like so many others, saw commercials growing up and I suffer from the awful and garbage brain-training that tells me pink is for girls). I struggle to judge what is an appropriate amount of brotherly roughhousing. Will too much make my kids violent people? What if they hit another person? In the wake of “Black Lives Matter” outcries for help and the chaos of an international pandemic, I find myself questioning even more so, how to ensure my kids will be a part of the solution for systemic racism.

I suspect I am not alone in this self-talk and these concerns.

So, how do we raise GOOD kids? Well, to quote author James Baldwin, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” In other words, we can’t raise good kids by trying to raise them. We raise good kids by being good people. This is no easy task. How can we be the role models our children need in order to make them good humans? What does that look like? What does ‘good’ even mean?

Let’s consider another scholar, Rabbi Hillel, and his unique phrase, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” This is B’etzelem Elohim, or the Jewish notion that everyone on the planet has the same Divine Spark with them, or at the very least acknowledging that ‘all’ humans are equal in their humanity.

Yet, how can we apply this to parenting? How can we apply this to the ethical behaviour of ‘being good’? It’s too broad! It’s too vague (I hear you cry)! Give me lists! Give me concrete answers I can pin on my chore wheel! Give me an MPP to email!

Sorry, not in this article. Instead, I’m going to suggest that you adopt Baldwin and Rabbi Hillel’s words as your daily mantras. They are the answer to ‘How to be good and raise good kids.’ What if I were to inform as many actions as possible with their words? What if I genuinely layered this humanizing respect into all my interactions and modelled it for my kids?

Maybe my kids would watch me speak politely and patiently with everyone. Maybe my kids would witness me master my temper or acknowledge my temper. Maybe my kids could see me actively participate in democratic discourse like emailing my MP about the unjust legislature or donating to compassionate causes. Maybe my kids would watch me constantly be accepting of new neighbours to our neighbourhood and country. Maybe my kids would watch me celebrate at a variety of rites of passage, no matter the friends’ background. Maybe they would see me stand up for marginalized voices.

To get nittier and grittier – our toys, our books, our TV shows and movies, our everything, is an opportunity to teach our kids to ask tough questions and to keep modelling these mantras. We can question the inclusivity and representation in our media and (in the process) teach our kids to question it too! If this feels like a lot, then ask yourself: how would I feel if a Jewish character was being misrepresented or under-represented? Make it personal and then acknowledge that others feel the same way with their own personal identifiers.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of work. Dang, it doesn’t even sound like actively parenting! This isn’t about making rules or nebulously shouting “be good.” If we truly want to raise ethical humans, we need to lay the blueprints in our own behaviour and we need to seek justice and humanity for those in need. It is in the moments when we are not actively parenting but simply living our lives that our kids are paying the most attention. Who are you in those moments, and what is it telling your kid? What are your words and actions modelling for them and moulding them into?

Thank you so much for reading, and taking the time to listen.