Bringing Up Mensches: Raising Boys to Be Good Men

I want them to be someone worthy of being admired and emulated. To be of noble character, whatever that means. I want to infuse them with goodness and dignity, responsibility, and sense of what's right. Because those Yiddish-makers knew the score: these are the things that matter.
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The news in the past week held stories of good men but much more of the opposite of that: of bravery and sacrifice and of stepping up and conversely of buck passing and fear, abuse and violence.

It's a hidden truth that men still hold the power. If that's so, then the only way things are going to get better is if it's those same men demanding it. If it's them who find how justice is enacted, how wars are fought, how violence is begotten, how women are treated, to be unacceptable, that things will be different.

Unfortunately, the world won't be a better place until it's the men who won't accept anything less. And it starts with the children.

That's why I think it's my role as the mother of sons, to raise them to become those kinds of men; to be mensches.

What is a mensch? As with many Yiddish words, it's hard to define in english. The most literal definition is a human being, but as we know, that doesn't really mean much these days.

A mensch is a someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being "a real mensch" is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous. (Rosten, Leo. 1968. The Joys of Yiddish. New York: Pocket Books. 237)

I'm the first woman that my guys will have ever loved, and probably not the last (because even if they're gay, which they say they're not but you never know, they'll still love women but just in a different way). I'm their sounding board and their influence and hopefully their conscience, and just like it's my job to raise my daughter to be a strong and confident, self-assured and beautiful-on-the-inside woman, it's my responsibility to raise my sons to be good men.

I want them to be someone worthy of being admired and emulated. To be of noble character, whatever that means. I want to infuse them with goodness and dignity, responsibility, and sense of what's right. Because those Yiddish-makers knew the score: these are the things that matter.

But how?

I can encourage them to be their best selves: While it's tempting, I don't give them all the answers or tell them how to behave. I don't tell them who to be friends with or what to do. But I ask questions. A lot of them. Sometimes really hard ones. I ask them what they think, why they do things and whether they think they made the best decision. I encourage them to be self-reflective. I ask them how they feel about others' actions, not to judge, but to learn. I hope they use my questions as a pathway to think for themselves and make these good choices on their own. I won't always be there, but my voice asking "Is this good?" will be.

I can teach them to look outside themselves: I believe that being empathetic and aware of others is a skill that not everyone is born with. One of my sons feels the plight of others too deeply, while alas, the other not enough. For both it's a balancing act that they need to learn. Because being able to intuit another's needs and feelings and try to understand their motivations, and sometimes put them above your their own is how they will forge long-lasting and successful relationships in all areas of their lives.

I can teach them to fail and then get up: I don't know if humans are born with a feeling of infallibility, or whether it's a learned behaviour. Regardless, I want to imbue my sons with resilience and grit and the knowledge that they're not perfect. It serves no purpose to continually build their egos up because then they won't know how to love themselves even when they have not succeeded. Their self-esteem must be based on how they recover after a failure, not just on how wonderful they are (which they are, don't get me wrong.) Otherwise, they may never learn to accept themselves, or others, as they are.

I help them to understand that it's not always more important to be right: For many men (and women), arguing to the bitter end and a need to win supersedes everything. There's no shame in conceding to another, to seeking a middle ground, to giving up. Sometimes it's just easier and sometimes it's just kindness. But the truth is, people are more important than winning, and the ones that you love and respect should always take precedence over what will only turn out to be pyrrhic victory.

I can teach them they're not the most important person in the world: Of course, to me they are. As is their sister and their father. But there is great satisfaction to be gained from putting someone else first, from thinking about what will make another happy, to gain joy from giving and not just receiving. I want my sons to know that there is contentment to be gained from respecting and doing for another, even if - especially if - there's nothing in it for you.

I can encourage them to accept responsibility: It's hard to come right out and admit you're wrong. But there's so much to be gotten from doing so. There is great value in honesty. To me, lying is worse than anything they may have done, for a dishonest heart will always take the path of least resistance. Learning from your mistakes and taking your lumps is one of the consequences of living. Buck passing, throwing someone else under the bus, cheating on your spouse, or placing blame on the recipient of your errors (or your crimes god forbid) is worse than the worst. Be a stupid ass, but then own it. Whether it's that they didn't do their homework or they struck someone in the heat of anger or passion, they won't be able to be better unless they know that they're wrong. And this is a hard truth.

I can teach them to respect women and treat them well and not to judge a book by it's cover. I can teach them that it's ok to cry and to care and to be warm and loving and strong and soft. And to step up to their responsibilities and to ask for help when they need it, and to give up when it's not working and to to dig deeper when there's more to give. I can offer them a sense of community and an environment where they can build the inner strength they need to stand up to others and to understand their fears and to give in to their reluctance because it doesn't feel right, and to push hesitation aside and take the leap. I can help them to find the strength to take their knocks and to support others when they're taking theirs. I can teach them to listen and to learn and to grow and to teach and to be.

I can teach them to be mensches, but in the end, it's all up to them and what kind of men they want to grow up to be.

I'd love to hear from other mothers of sons. What are you doing to grow great human beings?

(Originally published on