I spend a lot of time on here expressing my frustration with Miss M.
She is not always easy to live with and discipline. She is artistic and sensitive and mercurial. She is brilliant and touchy and messy.
But she’s also fabulous. Her imagination and mind and hands work in ways that I can’t really conceive of, and I disavow all attempts to credit me or my genes for that. In those ways she is like Athena, sprung fully formed.
In addition to all the ways that she is atypical, she’s also just a standard six-year-old. Good kid, likes school, wants to please her teachers and have friends.
Last Friday, there was a fair at school. With candies and cheap plastic prizes for “sale”–the prices were not in currency but rather in coupons. Mitzvah coupons. I proceeded to flip out, because what? Was I supposed to be writing notes for her good behavior and sending them in?
Digression: I hate this concept, mitzvah notes. I know many, many Orthodox preschools and kindergartens in the U.S. do this. I hate it. Here’s why: First of all, doing mitzvot (badly translated as good deeds) becomes a competition. Bad. Wrong. One should do or keep mitzvot for their own sake. Because the Torah said so. There’s a lot in the Torah about how to be a good person, and that should be the motivating factor. Not candy or prizes. Many mitzvot result in someone else feeling good or justice being done. Trust me, three or four years old is NOT too young to teach about empathy or ethics or rightness.
Second of all: Because it is a competition (for prizes or praise or bragging rights), the whole thing devolves into a pissing contest for good behavior. I mean, I am in favor of good behavior, but general goodness is not necessarily something that falls into the category of mitzvot.
For example: two siblings sharing toys and generally not beating on each other–not a mitzvah. Two siblings sharing their toys with guests, after taking their guests’ coats and offering a drink? Yes, the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests).
Making a picture for your friend? Nice, but not a mitzvah. Writing a letter to your classmate who has been sick to see how he is feeling, then finding his big brother to ferry it home? We’ll extrapolate that to YES, mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick)–within the restrictions of being six and without a cellphone or car of one’s own.
But don’t call it a mitzvah if it’s not. Call it kind, helpful, thoughtful, lovely, morally upright, or good. Just don’t invent mitzvot to cover your classroom bulletin board.
/Snitty public service announcement
Gila and another friend of ours assured me that mitzvah coupons at Miss M’s elementary school are a school-only phenomenon. It is up to the teachers/administrators to give them and up to the kids to keep track of them until one of these fairs (there are two or three a year) in order to redeem them. They earn the coupons for doing extra credit work (which I probably should have helped with–but see Digression for my objection to the principle) or for being “caught in the act” (as it were) doing something especially nice, kind, or helpful.
Miss M had one coupon, which she earned much earlier in the year for something neither of us remembered. I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t gotten one for writing the letter to her sick classmate (which earned her an admiring email home from her teacher); she’s also made phone calls (from home) to sick classmates without her teacher’s knowledge.
So I said we’d go find her teacher in the morning, before school. We did, and as Miss M lobbied for more coupons, her teacher gently told her that not every mitzvah will earn points. She started to cry, knowing that she had only one coupon to spend.
I felt horrible. First of all, had I known that the extra credit work would have earned points, I would have made an effort to do it with her. Second of all, the whole tallying of the coupons just made me furious. My sweet kid was in tears because she thought she wasn’t good enough.
She IS. She is good enough that she does nice things and acts properly EVEN WHEN NOBODY IS WATCHING! (A minute later, she picked up a scarf from the floor and made a beeline for its owner. Returning lost objects is a mitzvah; she probably doesn’t even know that it is. Nobody saw it but me.) How long it is going to take until those impulses are beaten out of her? “Well, if I am not going to earn mitzvah coupons, why should I bother?” THAT WOULD BE A SAD, SAD DAY, PEOPLE.
I gave her a pep talk, telling her that Hashem sees everything and knows what a kind and nice person she is, walked her to her classroom, feeling like crying myself. She saw kids who had PILES of coupons. Dozens. The bell rang, and I had to go. Her teacher caught my eye and asked if she was still crying about…you know. I said yes. She said, don’t worry, nobody goes to the fair without anything to spend.
A few hours later, my spy reported that Miss M was happy and had prizes. It turns out that other kids had shared their coupon bounty with her, which is a lesson in itself.
In the meantime, Taxman and I bought her two new glue sticks and an inexpensive set of markers. Because she is kind, fabulous, loves her office supplies…and then loses them.