He said he wasn’t going to fast on Yom Kippur.
She traded in her long-sleeved shirts and skirts for tank tops and shorts.
He got a second earring, this one on the top of his ear.
She was tired and annoyed by the rules. Shabbat meals became optional.
And so their parents came to me. The conversation started:
“How do you feel about what your kids are doing?”
“Resentful. Angry. I’m full of despair. I feel like a failure.”
“He’s ruining our family. What will be the effect on our other kids?”
“We’re hitting rock bottom.”
I said: I’m not an expert in parenting — just a fellow traveler. Here is what I’ve learned from walking the path with my children.
Step #1: It’s not about you. Let go of your ego.
Your ego is telling you — it’s about ME, as a mother or father. The voice in your head pushing: “How can she do this to ME? He is ruining MY Shabbat! I(!) am angry, I(!) am resentful, I(!) am full of despair” — that’s coming from your ego. It’s your “Me” voice, putting you in the center and convincing you that your relationship with your child is really about how YOU are doing.
For too long, my ego told me to worry about how this reflected on me as a father and educator to others. I felt a lot of anger, resentment, and despair.
But God entrusted specifically you to raise, nurture, and support this child. Of all the possible parents in the world, God chose you to be the parents of these kids. You have a responsibility — a mission.
Your rebellious, insolent, disrespectful kid is trying to figure out who he or she is. That’s what adolescence is about. Moving from childhood to adulthood shouldn’t be easy. For kids, moving from their parents’ voices to their own voice is one of the most demanding tasks of their lives. Many people never do it, remaining obedient children their whole lives. Yet most of us want our kids to be independent and find their own voice — on condition that it is the same as ours.
When I ask kids who have rejected the lifestyle and religious approach of their parents what they want, they always tell me the same thing:
“I want to be seen and heard as myself. I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want to be loved with an agenda. I don’t want to be compared to other kids. I just want my parents to see and hear me.”
That’s all. Not complicated. They don’t want our sage advice or the wisdom of our experience. They want to be seen and heard. What we might call an “I-Thou” relationship.
Do we have any idea how pained and broken are the kids who are not seen or heard?
There is only one place in the world where kids can be unconditionally nurtured and supported — their home. Friends come and go; they have their own paths and lives to discover. School and work are full of pressure and demands. These kids are walking the high-wire in life and their only safety net is the love and support their parents provide. What is the result of love and support becoming conditional? What happens when the parents remove the net?
There is a bond between parents and children that is meant to last a lifetime. It is irreplaceable. If the safety net becomes conditional, or worse yet, is removed, then both the parents and the kids experience a scarring which, unless seriously addressed, will impact the rest of their lives and permeate all of their relationships. The brokenness doesn’t go away. It plays out in the eventual families of these kids, in their marriages and their relationships with their own children. It is a generational brokenness.
I ask the parents:
“You know that you love your kid, but if I were to ask your child if s/he feels fully loved, what do you think s/he would say?”
Their faces go white. Silence. Finally, in a barely audible whisper: “Probably not.”
Step #2: Risk everything. It’s worth it.
Parenting is the loneliest profession. And it can make us feel utterly alone. When I reached rock bottom as a father, everything else in my life became irrelevant. Career became incidental. I could only pray: “Please God give me the wisdom to know what to do — because everything I’m trying is not working.” And God gave me what I needed: the ability to love my child even when he was confounding my family.
I wish a friend had said to me: “Why don’t you ask him? Why don’t you ask your kid what he needs from you? Now?”
If a friend had offered that suggestion, I would have received it like a punch in the gut. “What? Isn’t that turning upside-down the parent-child relationship? And even more — what if he asks me for something I can’t give? Like accepting him?”
If I had one do-over as a parent, I wish it had occurred to me to ask him, and then had the courage to do so.
A question like, “What do you need from me, as your parent?” is like pushing all of your chips to the center of the poker table. There is a moment of breathlessness that is frightening. It is scary to be “all-in.”
But our kids deserve and need us to be utterly vulnerable, risk-taking, and “all-in.” That’s walking the walk of loving our kids.
Step #3: It’s about your kid.
Listen, love, and support. Even when they make different decisions than you did, decisions that may break your heart.
I offer a new approach. I ask the parents:
“What if you tried to listen and see your kid — where he or she is?
What if, instead of giving your daughter “the look” when she wears a tank top, you asked her: “Where do you go shopping for your tank tops? Would you like to go together?”
What if, instead of giving your son “the look” when he talks about eating treif, you asked him with a smile: “What’s the tastiest treif you’ve eaten?”
The parents blanch at my words. I think the mother is going to be sick right in front of me. She says: “I could never do that. Do I have to agree with them?! What about my values?”
No, of course, you don’t have to agree with everything they do. But you do have to hear them; you have to hear them for where they are.
I ask: “Do you want to keep reminding them of your values? How is that working for you?! Isn’t that how you got to rock bottom? More importantly, your kids already know your values. They don’t miss a beat. They could write your script for you! They know what you’re going to say and when you don’t say it, they know what you’re thinking.
“What they don’t know is: will you still love and support them if they make different life decisions than you? Will you only love and support them if they are just like you? As they begin their journeys as adults, will you still treat them as children?”
The parents respond:
“But what will be the effect on our other kids if they see us supporting them when they are making decisions antithetical to ours?!”
“Your other kids will learn that you are a very loving parent. That your love is unconditional. That you will always be there for them, no matter what. They will learn from you how to love other people who have made different choices.”
Adolescence is tricky and dangerous. It is possible to make mistakes during those few years that reverberate for a lifetime. It is possible to scar and lose a child — forever. I remind the parents — take a deep breath and look at the marathon of parenting. Don’t you want to have a full unbroken relationship with your kids when they are in their 20s, 30s, and later? Or do you want to join the huge fraternity of parents who have damaged their relationship with their kids because of turbulent adolescent years, and now suffer through an empty shell of a relationship?
Finally, I offer the parents some homework:
Write a letter from your kid to you. Describe how you (in the voice of your kid) would like you (the parent) to love and support him/her. Write what you think your kid is desperate to hear from you, deep inside.
Then I ask the parents to share their letters with each other.
The commentators on the Shulchan Aruch write that one should not put a stumbling block before the blind. If, from the age when kids begin to develop their own self-awareness, their parents do not respect them, this will induce the kids to transgress honoring them. When the parents don’t listen or see their kids, they are putting a stumbling block before them.
Rav Kook writes that emunah (belief) and ahavah (love) are inextricably linked. Emunah without ahavah is empty. We can’t let our religious beliefs eclipse our love for people, all the more so for our children. God has chosen and entrusted us to be the parents of these kids. It’s not about us.
We are parenting in turbulent times. Parenting from rock bottom can teach us that underneath it all our relationship with our kids is extremely fragile. We need to remember: it’s not about us. We need to be “all-in,” and, despite all that their behavior may indicate, our kids still need us.