by Richard J. Prystowsky
“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
— Robert Fulghum
In The Altruistic Personality, a landmark study of rescuer behavior during the Holocaust, authors Samuel and Pearl Oliner demonstrate that parental modeling of caring behavior was a key differentiating factor between rescuers, on the one hand, and perpetrators and bystanders, on the other. I thought about this observation a number of years ago when I interviewed Irene Opdyke, a Christian rescuer from Poland who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. During this interview, Irene related the story of her mother’s taking into their house and caring for a sick, so-called, Gypsy woman — that is, someone who, according to social custom, should have been avoided. But for Irene’s mother, the sick woman’s heritage was irrelevant; what mattered was that the woman was sick, that she needed help, and that Irene’s mother could help her.
Although I do not want to suggest an easy correlation between the behavior of Irene’s mother and Irene’s behavior during the Holocaust (nor do the Oliners suggest easy correlations in their study), it was clear to me that the caring attitude and behavior that Irene’s mother displayed towards those in need left a deep and lasting impression on Irene. At great risk to herself, Irene actively helped Jews who were in desperate need of assistance. For Irene, the matter was straightforward: She had to help save the lives of these Jews — not because these persons were Jews, but because they were fellow human beings who needed help, who requested her help, and for whom she could provide assistance.
Though most of us will likely never be in a position to help persons in such desperate straits, daily we have opportunities to practice lovingkindness towards others and, in the process, to model for our children the kind of caring behavior that we teach them to value. As Mother Teresa has remarked: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
My own mother had learned this lesson from her mother, my grandmother Rachael Poliakoff, a Jew from Russia, who, as a teenager, had left her hostile, antisemitic homeland to come to the United States so that she could have a more promising life. Shortly after her arrival here, she entered into an arranged marriage with a cousin, also an immigrant from Russia. Sadly, her husband died when my mother (my grandmother’s youngest child) was only two or three years old. A widowed, single mother, living in the deep South during the Depression, my grandmother — a strong, religious woman with more than her share of personal hardships — raised eight children, making ends meet by successfully operating a pawn shop with the help of her older sons.
My mother told the following story: One day, during the Depression, a barefoot man walked into my grandmother’s pawn shop. As he was looking around the store, my grandmother approached him and asked him what size shoe he took. “Oh, Ma’am, I didn’t come here to buy shoes,” the man responded. “I can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes.” My grandmother replied, calmly and without judgment, “I didn’t ask you if you could afford them. I asked you what size you took.” And then she gave him a pair of shoes.
That incident had a profound, lasting effect on my mother, who, throughout her professional life, worked to help persons in need — especially those who were most vulnerable. The only female in her medical school class, my mother became a child psychiatrist (because of strict quotas concerning Jewish admission to her medical school, my mother was one of only three Jews in her class; my father, whom she met in medical school, was one of the other Jews in the class). She was also the director of a child guidance clinic in a socio-economically challenged area and, for a while, taught Head Start teachers. Like my grandmother, my mother had more than her share of personal struggles (she used to tell me about her daily after-school fights with antisemitic children, for instance). Yet, despite her struggles—or perhaps because of them—she championed underdogs and did what she could to help them.
Having suffered a stroke and then having been hit with Parkinson’s Disease, my mother was forced to retire from practice in the 1990s. Tragically, she died in a house fire four years ago. At the gathering following her funeral (which was attended by hundreds of people), person after person told me how grateful they were to my mother for all that she had done to help them or their children. She had saved their lives, they told me, and given them hope. I was moved beyond measure.
But I wasn’t surprised, because my mother cared deeply about the persons whom she helped, and they knew it. In fact, she would treat patients in her private practice regardless of whether or not they could afford to pay her. On one occasion, I heard another physician challenge her on this point: “I understand that you treat patients in your office who can’t afford to pay you,” he said, and then asked, “Is that true?” “Yes, that’s true,” my mother replied. “Why do you do that?” her physician colleague asked her. “That’s your private practice,” he continued. “Why don’t you send these patients to the clinic?” Without hesitating, and without a trace of anger or judgment, my mother answered, simply, “Because they’ve come to me for help, and I can help them.”
In that simple, straightforward, genuine, unrehearsed reply, I heard my grandmother in my mother. Indeed, by treating pro bono, persons who had come to her for help but who could not afford to pay her, my mother allowed these patients to retain their dignity. By not differentiating these patients from those who could afford to pay her, was my mother not, in her own way, giving pairs of shoes to barefoot persons?
When I think about my own passion for social justice and about my own commitment to help others, I can easily see my parents’ influence on me. As did my mother, my father, a retired pediatrician and still a practicing pediatric cardiologist (he introduced pediatric cardiology to the State of New Jersey in the early 1950s), my father also has worked tirelessly on behalf of children. When I asked him recently which of his professional accomplishments he felt were most significant, he thought for a moment and then replied, “My pro bono work.” Some of this work, indeed, has profoundly affected the lives of thousands of children, such as his efforts to help New Jersey provide catastrophic medical coverage for the state’s many children whose families otherwise might not be able to afford it. But more directly, my father makes kids feel special — one by one, routinely, as a matter of course. He cares deeply about kids, and they know it. When, during his days as a practicing pediatrician, he would visit children who couldn’t leave the hospital for Christmas, for example, my father, part doctor, part Santa, would bring these children cookies and do what he could to lift their spirits. In later years, the bags of cookies gave way to a giant gingerbread house filled with cookies. I remember seeing a photo of my dad at the hospital: He was sitting in front of a giant gingerbread house, his arm around a young, happy, Down’s syndrome child who was sitting on his knee.
As I suggested earlier, one needs to be careful not to infer too hastily or too conclusively that a correlative or causative relationship exists between parental influence and the actions and attitudes of the parents’ children. On the other hand, as the examples above indicate, one ought not to underestimate the deep significance of parental modeling on the actions and attitudes of parents’ children.
And so I ask you, my fellow parent homeschooler, to consider the many opportunities that you have, every day, to show your children how one can engage in small acts of lovingkindness undertaken with great love. As the Oliners found in their study of Holocaust rescuers, rescuers’ parents saw their relationship to those whom they helped not as one predicated upon common national, regional, political, religious, or other such ties, but, rather, as one predicated upon the fact that they were all part of a larger human family. Similarly, our obligation to care for others extends beyond the bounds of family, park day groups, homeschooling organizations, and other such narrowly defined marks of identity. We are all part of the human family. And, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently writes in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It follows, then, that others’ suffering is also our own suffering. As Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in Peace Is Every Step, “The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves ‘inside the skin’ of the other…. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the object of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’”
If we are mindful, we will notice that life presents us with many opportunities to practice everyday acts of parental modeling of compassionate, caring behavior. I used to tell the students in my Holocaust Studies seminars that we could gauge how much we’ve truly learned in the course by analyzing the way in which we treat the cashier at the grocery store.
Similarly, we might ask: How do we respond when our child or when someone else’s child at park day is repeatedly struggling to get along with others? Or, to take another example, do we try to help our neighbor whose child is unhappy in school? In these and other such (possible) interactions, what kind of behavior do we model — or fail to model — for our children?
Rabbi Leo Baeck, one of the most important rabbis of the Twentieth Century, has written the following: “It is easy to revel enthusiastically in one’s love of man, but it is more difficult to do good to someone solely because he is a human being.” Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Perhaps we can lessen the difficulty of this task if we remember that homeschooling parents are primary teachers of their children and that, for good or ill, we parents teach our children most profoundly by the ways in which we act or fail to act (failure to act is itself a kind of action). Although we cannot know for sure in what ways our behavior towards others will influence our children, we can be fairly certain that our children watch and learn from us. How do we want to be seen in their eyes? That, perhaps, is fundamentally our most driving question. R.J.P.