Written for The PJ Library August e-newsletter
Do you know that sinking, slightly nauseous, feeling you get when you and your kids return from a hot, lazy day of swimming and spitting watermelon seeds, only to find a back-to-school sale flyer in your mailbox? That’s how I feel when I receive a Rosh Hashanah book from The PJ Library in the middle of the summer. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the holiday begins at sunset on September 8, only three days later the than the earliest Rosh Hashanah in history. (Wait until 2013, when once again Rosh Hashanah falls on September 5 – three days after Labor Day.)
Fortunately, a beautiful book like Today is the Birthday of the World is a treat any time of year. In the story, God prepares for the day the rabbis understood as the anniversary of creation by asking each creature whether it was the very best self it could be. “This year, little beaver, my dear little beaver, did you build a strong dam?” God inquires. The bee is quizzed about its pollination, and the worm, its tunneling. We learn that each animal has a special gift, something to offer the world, children included. God praises children for planting gardens, making beautiful paintings, and sharing their toys – because “when you are the best you can be, the world is the best place that it can be.”
I glanced at my daughters as I read this line aloud. Their faces were beaming. I think they were truly delighted by the idea that their contributions matter – not just to me, and their Papa, but to the whole world. In her author notes, Linda Heller explains that she wrote the book because she wanted children to know how important their individual gifts are to the world – how very special each and every child is.
I agree with this message. My children are extraordinarily special, after all. And so are yours. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of Wendy Mogel‘s popular Jewish parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, in which she castigates our culture for its “outbreak of specialness” when it comes to our children. She contends that we make a huge mistake by heaping extraordinary praise on the very ordinary, and that such praise is actually counterproductive to building self-esteem. For as we learn from the (brilliant) film The Incredibles, saying everybody’s special is just another way of saying that nobody is.
In the end, I think both authors are correct. The “special” that Mogel describes is about evaluation. When we truly assess our children and their work, we should be honest. The “special” that Linda Heller describes, and that we feel about our children, is called love. Even the most mundane actions evoke tender feelings and heart-swelling pride when they are performed by our creations. That’s why God praises the giraffe for eating leaves off the highest branches, and why every one of us has marveled over watching our children sleep. (And, come on, admit it – their poops.) Too much of the first kind of praise may indeed be detrimental. But I’m quite certain no child has ever suffered from too much love.
L’Shanah Tovah -Happy New Year. (But not quite yet, I promise.)
The PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age eight. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.