Each year, in our corner of America, college admissions are a hot topic. People love to discuss which applicant was accepted to which school – and which ones were not. These conversations render judgment on the teens who have applied; on their families; and – of course – on the high schools that they attend. This year, as college campuses dominate the news, these discussions will no doubt be that much more intense. Everyone agrees that the process and our analysis of it is unhealthy and unfair, but we seem unable to break the cycle.
We have to be careful how we judge kids – both our own and those of other people. This week’s Torah reading of Vayeshev offers the cautionary tale of Yaakov’s favoring of Yosef. What was Yaakov thinking when he elevated Yosef over his brothers? Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin in his Haamek Davar explains that the Torah uses Yaakov’s more spiritual name of Yisrael when describing the favoritism to show that Yaakov saw a superior spiritual quality — rather than a material quality — in Yosef. But lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber write that Yaakov, who “could not imagine any danger,” loved his son because he “saw in Joseph all his dreams come true.” Did Yaakov love Yosef for who he was, or for the accomplishments of which Yosef dreamt? Psychologists describe the phenomenon of a parent’s “child contingent self-esteem,” which is when a parent feels that he or she is only as good as whatever their children have attained. We know that Yosef proudly told his family of his dreams, (and eagerly tattled on his brothers). Did he do so to make his father feel fulfilled? Novelist and essayist Jessica Grose provides some facts and figures on whether our kids are really better prepared for life having attended elite universities, and compelling argues that it doesn’t really matter what school one attends. But that admission letter makes parents feel that much better. This is self-care, not parenting.
In her important book Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It, Jennifer B. Wallace reminds us that it’s far more valuable for our kids to feel that they matter than it is for them to feel accomplished. “Mattering,” she writes, is about feeling that others take an interest in you and your ideas; that they are there to support you when you struggle and cheer your triumphs; and that they rely on you for guidance or help. This feeling is far more important than achieving MVP status, a high GPA or ACT score, or admission to a specific university. Kids who strive for such goals can lose sight of what’s really important. Psychologist William Damon has argued that the biggest problem today that kids face is not stress; it’s meaninglessness. Mattering is far more important for long-lasting happiness and success.
If we can instill the feeling of mattering in our kids (which might mean working on ourselves as well, making sure we don’t define our own parental success by their achievements) we will have done right by them. Wallace argues that mattering is infectious: when someone feels like they matter, they will seek to make others feel the same way.
Chanukah offers a chance to emphasize the message of mattering. In addition to (or instead of) the material gifts we give our kids, we can ask them to give a gift to the family, gifts that consist of time and effort. They can clean out the kitchen junk drawer, walk the dog every night for a week, or even help plan and cook Shabbat dinner. These gifts will allow them to feel like they matter – which will really be a gift to them as well.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.