A woman once told me that she despaired of the selfishness of her children. She could not understand how they had turned out this way as she had always set them a good example. "And how did you do this?" I asked. "By serving them generously," she replied. But perhaps we don't help people to become generous by giving to them but by involving them as we help others.
My mother was a public health nurse. She worked long hours, and often I did not see her a great deal during the week. When I was small, I remember accompanying her as she made home visits in the slums of New York City. When she invited me to come with her, she told me she needed me to help her by carrying her black bag. But perhaps she had asked me to come with her for far deeper reasons than this.
Her mother, my grandmother, was a rebbitzen, a rabbi's wife. In this role she often called on the sick, bringing food or helping with the household tasks. As a child in Russia, my mother went with her and helped her to feed people, bathe them, and even clean their houses. Whatever was needed. These were special times for my mother. She was one of six children and rarely got her mother to herself. She remembered this time spent together helping people as a privilege, a time of love.
Service was a way of life in my mother's family. It was not a way of life in New York City in the forties or even later. Like many children, when I was little I used to give away my toys, my mittens and sometimes even my shoes. If another child wanted my pain and shovel in the playground, I would not ask for it back; and if someone had no mittens, I would give them one of mine. This was seen by my teachers and many of the other adults around me as a problem that I would need to outgrow.
Often I would be sent home from school without half my crayons or, once, without my shoes and a note from my teacher explaining how I needed to learn to stand up for myself and have the courage not to let others take advantage of me. My mother would never scold me about these things but would, when necessary, simply replace what was missing. It never occurred to anyone else that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.
Service does not need to be taught. It may be a natural impulse in all people. As such, we may only need to strengthen it. In "Children, the Challenge," his revolutionary book on parenting, Dreikurs tells a story about a mother returning from the store and putting her bag of groceries down on the kitchen table. She opens the refrigerator, takes out the empty plastic containers that hold the eggs, and sets them on the table next to the bags. Then she begins to put the groceries away.
Returning from the pantry, she sees that her two-year-old has climbed onto the table, opened the egg carton, and two handed, is transferring one egg at a time into the egg container. "No, no," she cries out in alarm, "that's not for little girls, you'll break them," and she lifts her daughter who has begun to cry down from the table and puts the rest of the eggs away herself. Fourteen years later she will probably still be putting the eggs away herself and perhaps cleaning up her daughter's room as well.
Chances are that any helpful two-year-old will break some eggs. We are often not very good at things when we are new. But there may be an important choice to make at such moments. Do we support and protect the innate wish to be of help to others in our children, or do we protect the eggs? Hard as it seems, the greater mother wisdom may lie in a willingness to clean up broken eggs or replace a mitten and a box of crayons.
From "My Grandfathers Blessings" by Rachel Remen. c April 2000, Rachel Remen used by permission.