Two weeks ago, my family celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest son. To say it was a joyous event would be an understatement. My son is the oldest grandson on my side of the family and this brought an added element of importance to the big day. He also shared his Bar Mitzvah date with his grandfather, which added a special connection. We were joined by family members, some of who had not been in Israel in over 40 years. After a weekend full of celebrations, life finally started to return to “normal.” The morning after the big Bar Mitzvah party, I woke up and realized that I was now treading through unfamiliar territory, for I was now the parent of a teenager! My thoughts about the next several years did not help my already receding hairline.
As a veteran high school teacher, I have been involved with some amazing highs and some deep lows during these formative years. How will the next seven years turn out for my son? He has always been a “good” kid but this is uncharted territory. My role as his father is to provide my son with the tools he needs to get through these teen years successfully. For those of you who have teenage children I am sure that we can all agree that this is not as simple as it sounds. So, what can I do for my son? How can I, as his caring (and sometimes overbearing) father help my son navigate the challenges ahead?
- Family is Important — One of the greatest themes of the Bar Mitzvah weekend was learning about the challenges and successes of our family members. It is one thing when we tell our children, “back in my day…” but the importance of our family histories takes on a different meaning when it is discussed by other family members. During the Shabbat festivities, my son learned about the struggles that his great grandparents faced, and how being Jewish is not always a given. My son learned about relatives who survived the Holocaust and went on to do great things. He also learned about several people who were not as fortunate. After hearing all of the amazing anecdotes and stories, I really believe that it is important for a teen to maintain this connection to the family roots. There are different ways of achieving this goal, but remembering your history can shape the person you become.
- Clear and Realistic Expectations — The day after the big Bar Mitzvah weekend, I was a “mean” parent and I made my son go to Shul. I explained for what seemed like the 50th time that praying with a Minyan was something that we expected him to do regularly. Luckily, he was too tired to put up much of a fight, but this conversation got me thinking about the end goal. It is every Jewish parent’s hope that their children will continue to be proud Jews and productive members of their Jewish communities. At the same time, it is every Jewish parent’s greatest worry that their children may not continue with the traditions that were so important while growing up. I have been witness to both sides and it is of course important to me that my children want to continue to be proud and practicing Jews. So, while expectations are needed, I have also as a parent begun to realize that there may need to be some “give and take.” The same is true with non religious issues. Last night my son came home from school with a lot of homework. As a teacher and parent, my first thought was to have him start working immediately. My son asked for a half hour to relax after his long day and I agreed. Because I was willing to meet him half way, he sat down and did his work without any issues. Of course every child is different, but the expectations set for teens need to be realistic in order to be effective.
- Fun is also important — My wife and I are very lucky as my son is a hard working student, who cares about his grades and about his academic future. When I was his age, I was the polar opposite. I remember my parents paying for every available test to determine why I was doing so poorly in school. After a great deal of time and money, the results showed that I was an intelligent, capable, and lazy, kid. By the grace of God and some very caring teachers, I managed to get through school. Some of my former teachers are still in shock that I went into education. Luckily, my children did not inherit these particular traits, but there have been instances when I have seen the positive attitudes towards school take a turn to the dark side (had to get that in there). My teenage son has a long academic career ahead and it is important to set aside some time for fun, as well as for work. I regularly try to do fun activities with both of my kids. Whether it be grabbing burgers, watching a movie, or some other activity in which my wife has little interest, it is important for my kids to realize that I am not only there to remind them about homework and to clean their rooms. Especially at this stage, I think it is important for my son to know that having fun is important too. I know that my son looks forward to our fun times together. Because of the Bar Mitzvah, we have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie. I assured him not to worry, as we will be going this weekend!
- Someone to Talk to — My son has the “privilege” of having a teacher and a social worker as his parents. Both of my children know that they can come to either of us about any issues or problems. My kids have their own system, and they now know which problems to bring to me and when it is better to go to Mom. What is most important and scary about these new teenage years are all the things that could go wrong, even for a good kid like my son. I have met parents over the years who have chosen not to be so open with their children about certain “taboo” subjects like sex, drugs, and alcohol. As both an educator and parent, I cannot stress enough that this is the wrong approach. While discussing these subjects can sometimes be uncomfortable, it is important that our teenagers get the facts from their loving and caring parents, than from someone who does not have their best interests in mind. These years will bring a lot of temptations. My wife and I both attended Jewish day schools our entire lives. Both were and are still considered to be top schools, and yet, there were temptations and difficult decisions that we both had to make. Our teens need to first understand why certain behaviors are so problematic. Telling a teenager not to drink because “I said so” will not be effective. They also need to understand that when tough decisions need to be made, we will be there to support them. My son knows that my wife and I are both available, 24/7 if there is an issue with which he is uncomfortable. I have told him that I rather be woken up at 2 AM, than him putting himself in a bad situation. Here in Israel, teens have a great deal of freedom and independence that may not exist in other places. It is important that they feel safe, and that we as parents provide the needed support.
Being the parent of a teen is not an easy task. There are going to be challenges and tough decisions along the way. As “adult” as our teens want to be, the reality is that they still need their parents to help them through these challenging, yet important years. My son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration was the beginning of his journey to adulthood. He has his work cut out for him. Hopefully, I am also up to the challenge.