Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed: Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim. The world depends on three things: on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds. - Pirkei Avot 1:2
This year each issue of Vshinantam will be written in partnership with Dr. Robert Brooks www.drrobertbrooks.com, our featured speaker at the 2005 Symposium on Adolescence. New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council Regional Educator Sharon Halper will help us apply Dr. Brooks theory to our school settings.
Vshinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gmilut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find a selection of Dr. Brooks writing, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in Gmilut Chasadim additional resources.
In several of my writings I have emphasized the importance of providing children with opportunities to help others as a way of nurturing their compassion, self-esteem, and resilience. The act of enlisting the help of children conveys the message that we believe in you and that you have something to offer the worldintegral components of self-worth and resilience.
Living Ones Values
Most of us live very busy lives and it is easy for other priorities to interfere with a fuller expression of acts of caring. Yet, we must continue to struggle to define our priorities and then to ask the important question, Am I living my life in accordance with my values and priorities? In my clinical practice I have witnessed countless examples of well-meaning people failing to live their values at a cost to themselves and to their families.
I recall one man who came to see me because of increased anxiety and irritability. I asked him to list the things that he judged to be most important and of greatest value to him. He quickly mentioned his roles as a father and a husband. I requested that he describe his relationships with his children and wife. The picture that quickly emerged was a man who was so busy with his career that on many days he rarely saw his children and had very limited time with his wife. It was little wonder that he felt increasingly anxious and stressed. His actual behavior was far removed from his values and from the image he sought to achieve as a husband and father. In therapy we focused on ways that he could slowly change so that his behaviors would be more closely aligned with his values. He struggled to make these changes, but the more he walked the walk and the more caring he became, the less he experienced stress.
The Personal Benefits of Caring and Compassion
Years ago I read an article that referred to a helpers high. It emphasized that the very act of assisting others triggered a feeling of exhilaration that had both physiological and psychological roots. Most individuals with whom I have spoken have experienced this helpers high. I am not suggesting that we contribute to the lives of others simply to promote our own well-being but rather to recognize that an important by-product of our altruism is a heightening of our emotional security.
My wife called to my attention beliefs expressed by the Dalai Lama in his book The Art of Living. His words resonate with my own feelings, especially since they touch so directly upon the relationship between compassion and resilience. He writes:
There are various positive side-effects of enhancing ones compassion. One of them is that the greater the force of your compassion, the greater your resilience in confronting hardships and your ability to transform them into more positive conditions . I also think that the greater the force of your altruistic attitude toward sentient beings, the more courageous you become. The greater your courage, the less you feel prone to discouragement and loss of hope. Therefore compassion is also a source of inner strength. With increased inner strength it is possible to develop firm determination and with determination there is a greater chance of success, no matter what obstacles there may be. On the other hand, if you feel hesitation, fear, and a lack of confidence, then often you will develop a pessimistic attitude. I consider that to be the real seed of failure.
The words of the Dalai Lama are far reaching. A child or adults self-worth, dignity, hope, and resilience are nurtured when engaged in acts of caring. While being compassionate to others, we add value and meaning to our own life.
The Actions We Can Take
The positive impact that acts of contributing and caring have on our and our childrens emotional health should prompt us to reflect upon what is it that we can do to keep this impact alive each and every day. We must not permit opportunities to pass by in which we can help others to feel special, cared about, and appreciated.
I ask children what charitable activities have they and their parents participated in together. I believe that even young children can accompany parents to deliver meals for the elderly or help out at a soup kitchen or go for a Walk for Hunger or Walk for AIDS or any designated charity. These acts should not be reserved for holidays but should become part of every familys routine throughout the year. As I have often said, I believe there is an inborn need in children to want to help others and that we must nurture and reinforce this need.
There are many, many values that we can teach our children and one of the most important is to be compassionate, caring people. This task will be facilitated when we model compassion in all of our relationships and when we involve our children in experiencing the joy of being contributing members of their society. We must strive to replace self-centeredness and selfishness with a genuine interest in and concern for others. In such a scenario, all will benefit.
Helping Students Help Out
In his article, Dr. Brooks speaks of the importance of nurturing compassion in our students by enlisting their significant participation in helping others. For Dr. Brooks, these acts of caring serve the needs of all involved. For the person performing the act of compassion, his or her sense of self-esteem is served by the expression of faith in their ability to do so and through the development of a sense of their personal power to respond to adversity. This, in turn, leads to the development of a lifetime attitude of resilience, of being able to exercise control even through adversity and to make positive contributions to society. Below are a few ways we can apply this concept to our settings.
Be true to you.
Dr. Brooks speaks of the importance of living according to ones values and priorities. Think about yourself as a teacher and a role model. List your primary values for yourself and your students in your classroom. Now look at each value you expressed. How are you doing? If there is a gap between your values and your behaviors, to what can you attribute this behavior gap? What would enable you to move closer to your ideal? Who can help you get there? Share your inventory with your director or a close colleague and take a step to narrow the values/performance gap.
Create a values-based classroom.
Demonstrate your compassion and create an environment that supports your expectation of compassion from students. Be conscious about how much class time is devoted to encouragement and feedback from you and your students. The culture of your classroom should be one where students eagerly assist one another and know how to do so as well as how to seek out help when needed. Create a classroom climate where students have opportunities to be helpful and where their helpfulness is acknowledged.
Exemplify the value of helping out in your congregation.
Look for opportunities to reinforce the value of helping out and for students to act on that value. Send the message that become bar or bat mitzvah means assuming responsibility beyond the day of the ceremony. Invite students to participate in tikkun olam and tzedakah committees. Give students leadership roles, reading Torah or singing in the synagogue choir. Consider creating a shiva minyan committee of youth group members who can help out in a house of mourning. If we want students to take seriously the idea that they are legal members of the Jewish community after bar or bat mitzvah, we need to create opportunities for them to participate and make a difference in the life of their Jewish community.
Engage parents as role models.
Family education is more than bringing parents to school for a program. Its strengthening the familys ability to engage their own children in acts of chesed around the Jewish life and holiday cycle and every day. Give parents the tools they need to both seek out opportunities to be models of caring and to identify those times they already do so. They can make an impression by explaining to their children what they are doing and why when they write a check to a charitable organization, cook food for a friend in need, or stop to help someone on the street. Let the parents of your students know when there is a simchah or a challenge in the life of another family and enable a class-wide response.
Empower students to direct their Jewish learning and living.
In addition to all they learn in school, our students need to be given meaningful opportunities to act on that knowledge in order for Jewish living to become meaningful and internalized. Our schools often function as the students community of practice and that practice is most effective when it is the product of student interest and concern. Allowing students to be decision-makers in the life of the class and in their tikkun olam activities makes each participant a stakeholder in their success. Researching, creating, planning, organizing and running a class project equips students to feel themselves capable and skilled, in and beyond the classroom. Allowing students to direct and enact their learning builds a stronger Jewish future.
Brooks, Robert Dr. The Self-Esteem Teacher.Loveland, OH: Treehaus Communications, 1991.
Brooks, Robert and Sam Goldstein. Raising resilient children. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Coles, Robert. The Moral Intelligence of Children. New York: Plume Books: 1998.
Damon, William. The Moral Child: Nurturing Childrens Natural Moral Growth. New York:The Free Press 1988.
Glenn, H. Stephen and Jane Nelson. Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing and Communications, 1989.
Novick, Bernard, Jeffrey S. Kress and Maurice J. Elias.Building Learning Communities with Character: How to Integrate Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Danvers, MA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.
Thomsen, Kate.Building Resilient Students: Integrating Resiliency into What You Already Know and Do. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2002.