Parenting Jewish Teens

How to help your teens grow as they prepare to leave home.

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In the Book of Genesis, we encounter many stories of individuals who leave their parents' homes under difficult circumstances.  For today's Jewish teens, the struggle for leave-taking begins long before the actual physical event. This is an emotional and often conflict-filled process of separation generally beginning around the time of bar/bat mitzvah, peaking between the ages of 15 to 19, and usually subsiding by the early to mid-twenties.

 

Peace in the Home

How well Jewish parents handle this natural but challenging process can have a significant impact on shalom bayit, peace in the home, and set the stage for relationships with the soon-to-be-adult children for many years to come. Since the teenage years are such a time of change, experimentation, and identity redefinition, it can be hard for parents to sort out which issues require their attention and which can be ignored. And given the fact that many teens enact the separation process around matters of Jewish observance,  it is not surprising that parents of Jewish teens may find themselves asking the question: "What happened to the child I thought I had raised?!"

Fortunately, Jewish tradition offers parents helpful guidance during this important and challenging family transition:

Model Desired Behavior

Though it may not be apparent, teens are keen observers of their parents' behavior, and are quick to notice contradictions and inconsistencies, so sending clear messages--in words and in deeds--is essential. A tale is told about the Zhitomer rabbi who was once walking with his son when they noticed a drunken father and his drunken son stumbling along. The rabbi said to his son, "I envy that father. He has accomplished his goal of having a son like himself…I can only hope that the drunkard is not more successful in training his son than I am with you." (Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living, Jonathan David Publishers)

Continue to Build Mutual Trust

The importance of parental honesty with children is clearly delineated in the Talmud (Sukkah 46b). Parents are instructed to refrain from promising their child something they might not be able to deliver, lest they cause feelings of disappointment in the child and teach dishonesty, however inadvertently. In relationships with teens, parents may feel the teen cannot be trusted because the teen secretly behaved in a way that violated family rules and norms. However, it can sometimes be the case that the parents have created a situation in which the teen might be strongly tempted to violate rules that are no longer realistic or appropriate. While a parent is responsible for preventing an adult (post bar/bat mitvah) child from committing a wrong if it is within the parent's ability to do so (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 54b, Sukkah 56b), unrealistic restrictions could sometimes cause a teen to commit a wrong. In this case, the parents are unwittingly putting a stumbling block before their child (Leviticus 19:14). Mutually respectful dialogue is essential to producing guidelines with which both parent and teen can live.

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Joanne Doades

Joanne Doades the author of Parenting Jewish Teens: A Guide for the Perplexed (Jewish Lights Publishing) and the Director of Curriculum Development for the Union for Reform Judaism Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning.