The Rebellious Child: How Far to Push?
by Gil Mann
During our Passover Seders, we read about the famous four sons: The wise, the rebellious, the simple and the one who cannot yet speak. Below is a letter about a rebellious child. The subject: Jewish education. I am sure many parents… and children will relate.
We'd like your opinion about how to approach Judaism and Jewish learning with our teenage son. Recently an opportunity came up for him to attend an excellent Jewish high school in our town. We were thrilled. He was not.
In fact, he sabotaged the admission process by purposely doing poorly on the placement exams. He basically wants to go where his friends go. Now, we would like him to supplement his education in some other ways -- going to services and participating (not reading a book during services, his current practice), doing a Torah reading occasionally, getting involved in the Jewish youth group at our temple, etc.
My son does attend a Jewish camp and took (with pressure) a one week trip to
Given how adept your son is at sabotage, I think you are right; pushing him too hard could be counterproductive. When our son Josh (he told me I could use his name), was a teen, even a preteen, he had a similar attitude, though thankfully he was not a saboteur! We responded in four ways.
#1 We genuinely listened to his objections about everything from frustration with services to attending a Jewish day school. Of course, genuinely listening to children should be standard operating procedure no matter what the issue.
But for some reason, when the subject is religion, many parents seem to have a different attitude…more akin to cramming religion down the kid’s throat. For example, “I had a Bar Mitzvah and you are going to have one too -- whether you like it or not.”
When Josh was 11, he informed us that he did not want to have a Bar Mitzvah. Though we don't think an 11 year old is in a position to make such a decision, we told him that we would not force him. We explained that he automatically “became” a Bar Mitzvah when he was 13. We told him if he wanted to “have” a Bar Mitzvah, he could at anytime as long as the ceremony was not within 6 months of his siblings. We also gave him a number of things to think about in his decision.
Knowing Josh, we chose this tactic because we felt confident that he would decide he did want a Bar Mitzvah. As we expected, after he reflected a bit more, he indeed chose to have a Bar Mitzvah. Not only that, he did so with gusto and learned much more than average for his Bar Mitzvah. In the end, he was very proud of himself.
#2 As for his questions and objections, we did our best to answer and told him that we genuinely respected his thinking and questioning. I told him that I shared many of his sentiments, e.g., like Josh, I often find services to be meaningless and I do not believe in traditional images of God.
Over the course of my conversations with him, I shared answers I had found to my own objections and questions. I explained in detail why Judaism was important to me. I also sought answers from a rabbi that Josh liked. The three of us spent several sessions together talking about Josh's objections.
Here I must make an important point: you should be able to articulate your answers to the questions “why does Judaism matter?” and “why be Jewish?” if you hope to have your children also want to be Jewish.
#3 We made compromises -- that is both of us. My wife and I agreed to be flexible about not forcing him to do everything “Jewish” we wanted. Josh agreed to truly try the things he attended, even if he did not think he was gaining anything of value. Over time, he became fairly active in our synagogue's youth group. Every summer he looked forward to attending 8 weeks of Jewish summer camp…though I suspect his attendance and participation in prayer services was spotty. I chose not to give him grief over that. We did pressured him to take a trip to
#4 More important than all of this, my wife and I model that we love being Jewish 24/7. We love Jewish holidays, ethics, community, caring, food, family,
As a part of modeling, keep in mind this wonderful quote from Robert Fulgham, that I've thought of often as a parent: “Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.
Whether your child, grandchild, or child you care about is wise, rebellious, simple or unable to ask a question, how you lead your life is probably the greatest influence on the child. Think of your parents and grandparents and how they influenced you Jewishly. You play the same role to the children watching you. Remembering this, do your best to emulate the good influences you saw as a child and live a life you hope your child will want to emulate. You and your child with both be rewarded.
PS Today Josh is 22 years old. He is passionately involved in a number of Jewish causes and cares deeply about our synagogue… though he is still not crazy about services.
To see more of Gil's writing, and his books, Sex, God, Christmas & Jew and How to Get More Out of Being Jewish Even If: go to www.beingjewish.org