Last week, AVI CHAI sponsored seven veteran Jewish day school leaders to attend Harvard University’s Independent Schools Institute (ISI), a 3.5-day intensive program to develop leadership skills and research-based strategies amongst independent-school leaders. The day school leaders examined as a group how the sessions fit into a Jewish framework – specifically looking at Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood – with the facilitation of Jonathan Cannon, Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) mentor and Head of School of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Here, one of these leaders, Rabbi Gil Perl, Head of School at Margolin Hebrew Academy / Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, shares some of his thoughts from ISI.
By: Rabbi Gil Perl
What are the most significant impediments in today’s society to the moral development of our children? TV? Video games? The internet? According to Professor Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, it isn’t any of the above. His research has consistently concluded that more dangerous to our children than TV, video games, or the internet is today’s unprecedented focus on the achievement and happiness of our children.
This week, due to the largess of The AVI CHAI Foundation, I was one of seven Jewish day school administrators and one of 40 independent school leaders from around the globe who had the opportunity to learn in person from Dr. Weissbourd and his fellow faculty in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. When I read his work a few months ago, I found myself nodding in agreement. When I heard him in person this week, I found forty other independent school administrators doing the same.
Among the arguments he made, Professor Weissbourd noted that over the last few decades schools and parents have been investing more and more time and energy into ensuring that children feel good about themselves and less and less time and energy instructing children as to how to make others feel good. It’s as if we have assumed that if our kids feel good, they’ll act good; if we build them up and ensure their happiness, everything else will fall into place. After all, he asked us to compare the number of times we have heard parents say of their children: “All I want is that they should be happy” with the number of times we have heard parents say: “All I want is that they should be kind.”
Yet Weissbourd notes that there is no research to support the notion that people who feel good about themselves tend to do good for others or that those with poor self image act poorly toward others. For example, it was once thought that bullying stems from a deficiency in self esteem. The bully, in order to mask his or her insecurities, lashes out at others to prove to themselves and others that they have power and, thus, value. Build our kids’ up, then, the theory went, and bullying will subside. Reasonable as the theory sounds, it has been debunked by research. There is no corollary between bullying and low self esteem. In fact, many bullies score quite high in that area. What bullies lack is empathy, and empathy doesn’t come from telling kids that we just want them to be happy. It comes from telling them that we just want them to be kind.
In fact, if there is a correlation between being happy and being good, said Weissbourd, it works in the reverse. Being good often leads to being happy. Weissbourd was quick to point out that we as educators and parents should not use the pursuit of happiness as motivation for morality (e.g.: “Do what’s right because it will make you happy”), but he said the correlation does seem to be there. Empathy, kindness, and taking an interest in the welfare of others, after all, are the necessary ingredients for building successful relationships. And it is in meaningful, deep, and successful relationships that true happiness is found.
Upon hearing him say that, I couldn’t help but think of the fact that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks maintains that at its core, the Torah is all about relationships: our relationship with G-d, our relationship to the Jewish people, and our relationship to mankind. The Torah’s narrative is centered around the idea of brit or covenant. A covenant is a sacred relationship in which two parties agree to care for the other.
So if happiness is to be found in caring relationships, and caring relationships are the foundation of Torah, then thanks to Professor Weissbourd, with some help from Rabbi Sacks, I walked away from that session in the Harvard Ed School with a more profound understanding of the pasuk in Mishlei which we say each and every time we put the Torah away: “Deracheha darchei noam vi-chol netivoteha shalom,” “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and its paths are paths of peace.” The Torah demands of us that we be good. And if and when we are, we’ll come to appreciate what pleasantness, happiness, and peace of mind truly are.
Rabbi Gil Perl is Head of School at Margolin Hebrew Academy / Feinstone Yeshiva of the South in Memphis, TN. This post also appeared in the MHA/FYOS newsletter.