Don’t Protect Your Children: Teaching Kids Compassion and Justice through Service

by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Should our children see the “seamier” side of life? Should we expose them to people whose lives and choices are other than those of which we approve? How much suffering should a young child see and what affect will it have on him or her?

In every generation, parents worry about what their children should and should not experience. Recently, reticence to expose children to extreme poverty, suffering, or poor personal choices was brought to my attention. I was asked by a congregation to lead a discussion for parents on the merits of permitting young children to participate in a Mitzvah Day program, even when it meant exposure to teenage single mothers, drug addicts recuperating from their addictions, and homeless people in a soup kitchen. “Will my children be scarred from this exposure?” a parent had asked, triggering others to ask similar questions.

On a Sunday morning I sat among a circle of parents, all devoted, well-educated, caring people, and told them that not only would their kids be okay, but they would become mentshes and stronger people for their participation in Mitzvah Day. I shared with them some of my own children’s experiences, but mostly I gave them this advice: it is not so much what your children see on Mitzvah Day, but how you help them assimilate what they see into their moral value system, that matters.

If children help to feed people in a soup kitchen, the message they should learn is: no one should go hungry, and we Jews are obligated to obliterate hunger in the world. If children plant flowers at a home for unwed teenage mothers, the message they should receive is: even when people make wrong and irresponsible behavioral choices, they deserve care, respect and help to improve their lives. If children stock the food pantry at a homeless shelter, the message they absorb is: having a home is a basic human right and when people fall on hard times, I can be part of the solution.

Pain is a part of life. We do not do our children a favor when we shield them from all pain indiscriminately. They must learn to deal with pain, both theirs and the pain of others.

My 10-year-old daughter has, for the past two years, volunteered each week at an assisted living center near our home. She was initially paired up with a woman whom she visited weekly, but in the course of her visits, she became very attached to a gentleman there with whom she took walks and with whom she shared many happy moments.

When he died last autumn and she did not learn about his death for a week, she was devastated. She felt that a part of her had died. She grieved deeply. Yet even in her grief she learned that she is blessed with a supportive and loving family that cradled her through her mourning, and supportive teachers at school who let her know that they understood her grief.

A month later, my daughter’s woman companion also died after a lengthy stay in the hospital. In this case, because the family was Jewish, they notified my daughter immediately. She attended the funeral, went to shiva, and attended a weekday minyan in addition to say Kaddish. From these experiences she learned the magic and value of Jewish mourning rituals to help a soul grieve. She also drew closer to her companion’s family, whom she now sees regularly in synagogue, and this has also been a good experience.

I was afraid that my daughter might find her work at the assisted living center too painful and too risky, but I was wrong: her response to these two losses was to double her time spent there each week.

Another daughter worked at a soup kitchen in downtown Baltimore with her youth group. “I never worked so hard in my life!” she reported when she came home and literally collapsed in the family room. “I can barely move. When can I go back?” Did she like the work? No; it was unpleasant, noisy, difficult work and while most of the people being served were very nice, a few of the men were less than appropriate (though not at all dangerous). Why, then, did she want to return? “I was needed and I really accomplished something,” she said.

I know a 12-year-old girl who took her friends to help for a day with children who have AIDS. Sure, they were hesitant at first, but they learned the great joy of giving that day.

I know an 8-year-old who asked her friends to bring arts and crafts supplies to donate to the children’s floor of the local hospital in lieu of birthday gifts when they came to her party. My son and I had the privilege of accompanying her when she brought the supplies to the hospital; this was clearly the highlight of her birthday celebration.

I know a 10-year-old whose parents give him money to buy homeless people lunch when he passes them walking through the city. Can he feed every homeless person? No, but he has learned that he may not bypass every homeless person either.

Our children do not want to live, nor are they better people for living, behind insulated walls of an idealized childhood. The real world is all around them, and the more they contribute to solving the very real and horrific problems in our society, the stronger and more compassionate they will be, the more they will learn about themselves, and the more they will care about others.

Our children must learn that hope is a necessity, not a luxury, and that compassion and justice are the most essential guideposts for any society. The only way to learn these lessons is to roll up your sleeves and get involved.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman graduated from Brown University in 1979 and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1984. She has served a variety of congregations, teaches, and serves as a police chaplain. She lives in Maryland with her husband and their four children, ages 8, 11, 14, and 17.