Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

On being a mensch

Raising children who learn to value themselves not by what they've done, but by who they are. Photo by mvictor, courtesy of morguefile.com.

When I first became a mother, I was 25 years old. Today, more than 25 years later, I am the mother of three, stepmother of two and mother-in-law of one. I count myself fortunate to not only love but like every single one of these grown children in my life and am eternally grateful for a husband who is as giving of himself to my kids as he is to his own.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day may come but once a year, but parenthood is an everyday occupation, a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. That is not to say parents shouldn’t have fun with their children. But it does mean that we parents ought to be very cognizant of the effect that our words and actions have on our children’s psyches. We leave an imprint on our children’s character, their memories, their soul. Just as our own upbringing did on ours.

At the same time, we also ought to recognize that the decisions our children make are their decisions, not ours. And not everything they do is a reflection on our character.

Still, it gives my husband and me great satisfaction to see the adults our children have become or are becoming. Responsible, resilient, thoughtful, considerate of others. Mensches.

For me, these traits are paramount.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with how people judge themselves (and others). How do we define success or worth? How should we?

I don’t believe it should be necessarily by our accomplishments, be they the degrees we’ve earned, where we are in our career, or how much wealth we may have accumulated. While these are things to work towards, the journey of how we got there matters.

Were we ethical and diligent? Did we reap rewards at anyone else’s expense? Can we look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we were honorable in our behavior?

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this has to do with how I believe too many people look outwards for validation of who they are. Whether performance reviews at work, followers on social media or even a place at the cool kids’ table in the school cafeteria, this reliance on others to help us determine our value fosters a situation where what we do becomes more important than who we are.

But who we are matters.

At the same time — and the reason I’ve been struggling with this – is that I recognize while we must be able to look inwards without any external measuring stick to see the kind of person we are and to understand where we still need to grow, all these only matters within a social context.

If all we do is look inside, we are incomplete.

For society to function we need movers and doers, people who strive to achieve. Competition is a great stimulus and one that relies on us judging ourselves and others in order to exponentially grow our motivation. It is external. It relies on measuring accomplishments. Who is the quickest, smartest, most efficient at creating a cure for a disease, a piece of technology that will transform lives, a clean and sustainable source of energy?

Perhaps there is no conflict. Motivated can live in the same space as responsible, thoughtful and honest. Because as long as the end product of what the motivated person produces is not the measuring stick we use to judge, and as long as we instead focus on the how behind the effort, we can make it work.

This week, as I wrap up my grad school internship, I have been focusing on two aspects of nonprofit organizations: board responsibilities and value statements. And I can see how they both fit into this discussion. The first, responsibilities, can be defined differently for the entire board and for each member. Perhaps there is a parallel to us as individuals and the society we live in. We can speak to our individual values (e.g., honesty or respectfulness), but might they differ from the collective values a society should hold dear? With a social contract, we think of the trade-off of rights and responsibilities between citizens and the government, i.e., what rights to we forego in order to get protections afforded by the state? But can we also define character traits for that same collective mass that are any different than those individuals have on their own? I am not sure. But I do know that in the absence of a broadly defined list that we all know and abide by, we have to create our own. Whether or not it will be identical, I can’t say. I do know that if we are to use character traits and not accomplishments as our measuring stick, mine would be built on honesty and on how we treat others. I hold these values close to my heart. What strikes you as important?

The second topic I focused on this week for school, value statements, have to do with how a nonprofit proclaims to the world what it stands for; its values provide a measuring stick to those inside and outside of the organization. Aren’t values and character traits one and the same? Shouldn’t we craft our own value statements as individuals? While I hold integrity, fairness, kindness towards others and intentionality as very important, what other character traits do you consider paramount?

Once we have our list, I think it vital we use it, substituting these values for any other measuring stick we have been using to judge ourselves. Instead of the size of our bank account or of our house, how about the size of our heart? Instead of the important title we hold at work, how about the work we do to ensure we are considerate of those around us?

And this brings us back to how we try to raise our children.

Whether we are mothers, fathers, grandparents or other caretakers, if we raise our children to value their character, if we cultivate in them empathy and understanding, thoughtfulness and the desire to be helpful towards others, honesty and tactfulness – if we do all this and we make sure they get the message that these are what matters in a person, then we will have — dare I say it — accomplished a good thing.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture. Since returning to the U.S. in 2003; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, MIL to a French Mizrahi DIL and an Israeli DIL whose parents are also an interesting mix, and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hope this comes out in her blogs. Wendy recently wrapped up work as a researcher for an Israel education nonprofit and completed two master's degrees in public administration and integrated global communication, and is looking for her next opportunity. Her interest in resolving conflict had her also taking a grad school class on conflict management and completing certification as a human rights consultant, Wendy's interests also have her digging deep into genealogy and bringing distant family together. All of this is to say, Wendy's life has brought her to the widened framework she uses for her blogs: there are many ways to see and understand.
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