I have a quick question and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. In Yiddishkeit, it is a lofty level for someone to be able to be mevater, whether between husband and wife or between two friends, etc. This is something we would love to teach our children as well. My question is, if your child has a situation where he or she should be mevater, how do you know when to get your child to try to be mevater or when your child should be taught to stand up for himself? What is the geder between kids being mevater and building our children’s self-esteem?
I first heard the term “being mevater” about 20 years ago. Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky, zt’l, told me I should have a theme for every year. When I asked him what the theme should be, he told me that the boys should learn to be mevater. I didn’t understand it fully then, so I asked Rabbi Herzberg, zt’l, who told me, “You can’t explain mevater; you have to live it.” He added that it should always be my yearly theme.
So every week (even now) when I send my class newsletter home, it has a picture of a little person exclaiming, “I was mevater!” However, the term “mevater” has become overused in that it’s now loosely translated as “giving in” which is not the real meaning. The word is hard to translate accurately, but it really means to relinquish what is yours.
Here’s the difference. Imagine that two children are playing a game and they’re taking turns. This is called sharing. As you’re watching them, one of them tries to continue playing even though his turn is up. You turn to him and say, “It’s not your turn; be mevater.” However, that’s incorrect. It’s not his turn, and he’s not giving up something that is rightfully his. If the other child were to say, “That’s OK, he can play a little longer,” that is being mevater.
I can explain another difference by sharing a story that happened to me a few weeks ago. My wife sent me to the Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst on Thursday night (gasp). It goes without saying that it was quite busy in the store, but thankfully I was only picking up a few items. I headed over to the “15 items or less line” and began waiting patiently. Suddenly, a lady came running up, carrying a few boxes of eggs, and asked the woman in the front if she could go ahead of her. The lady magnanimously replied, “I’ll gladly be mevater!”
It was a beautifully inspiring scene except for one small detail. This lady couldn’t be mevater since she was inconveniencing all the people behind her. No one said a word, but the stares of the others in line could’ve cut steel. Had she said, “Take my place; I’ll go to the back of the line,” well, that would’ve been being mevater.
Now that we have a better understanding of the word, let’s try to figure out the answer to your question. You are wondering when a child should stand up for himself as opposed to being mevater. We want our children to have confidence and be willing to stand up for what’s correct. If your child is constantly giving in, you’re worried that he won’t gain the confidence required to mature.
There are children who are raised like this, and whenever there is any conflict, they quickly give in. I agree that it’s not healthy. Years ago, I had a boy in my class who took the front seat on the first day. When another boy asked for that seat, he said “Sure.” A few minutes later, another boy asked for his new seat, and he gave that up as well. A few minutes later he was sitting in the back. I walked over to him and asked where he really wanted to sit, and he told me, “Near the front so I can focus better, but it’s fine.” I moved him back to the front and shifted everyone back a seat.
I called his mother after yeshiva, and she said, “He really does need the front, and I drove him early so he could pick a good seat. If a different boy wants the seat, I guess he can sit farther back.” I told her that if he will learn better in a specific seat, he shouldn’t give it up so easily. Teaching our children to stand up for themselves, when appropriate, is very important.
Standing up for oneself and being mevater aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s give some examples. It’s Friday night and the meal is about to start. Your oldest son always sits next to you and is about to sit down when his younger brother says, “I want to sit here tonight!” As you’re mentally preparing yourself for a meal of bickering and sulking, your bechor turns and says to his brother with a smile, “It’s OK; you can sit in my seat tonight.”
This is the true meaning of mevater. He made it clear that it was his seat and that he was willing to relinquish the seat. It was also understood that this was a one-time offer. Most importantly, he did this of his own initiative and with a smile.
Another example would be during breakfast time. One of your kids is about to pour the last of the Fruity Pebbles into his bowl, when a younger sibling cries, “I wanted some!” The older child stops for a second, and says to his younger sibling, “Here. I’ll pour it for you.” Again, he is relinquishing the right to the cereal, and doing it with a great attitude. He’s going all out, “b’lev shaleim,” which is a key part to being mevater.
In both cases, your child is taking control of the situation and still being mevater. Here are some helpful hints that will help you understand how to teach your children to be mevater while still giving them the confidence that they need to stand up for themselves.
- If your children are ever arguing, instead of choosing a side or getting involved, ask them to pause for a second. Explain both sides of the argument out loud. Then call over the more mature one and quietly tell him that this is a chance to prove his maturity by being mevater even though he feels he is correct.
- Being mevater should be with the right attitude. Saying, “Fine! Keep the dumb book!” isn’t being mevater.
- Asking, “Who wants to be mevater?” when kids are arguing is OK occasionally. If you say it every day, it cheapens the word.
- It’s helpful to explain to your child why you’re proud of her. “You were supposed to get a turn, and you gave it up for your sister. That’s very kind and generous of you! Great job being mevater!”
- I don’t think the word “mevater” should ever be said by the person who’s being mevater. For example, if your daughter says, “I’ll be mevater,” you can tell her, “That was very nice of you. Next time try being mevater without even saying so.”
- No one should ever be mevater at another person’s expense.
Wishing you continued Yiddishe nachas from your children.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly emails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.