Today’s Teenagers, Without Boundaries

Today’s Teenagers, Without Boundaries

BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK

I recently wrote an article about how many teenagers appear to have no feelings for Yiddishkeit. Many are not angry just uninvolved. They are detached. Not only are they detached from religion, but they also lack boundaries. They do not believe that their families and their values necessarily represent them and their own values. This leaves them with no values; hence no boundaries.

Boys and girls, sometimes as young as 12 years old, are taking their lives into their own hands. They feel empowered and believe that it is their responsibility to themselves, to make decisions in areas that, in reality, should be reserved for their parents, their schools and, more seriously, for Hashem. What results are young children that behave in a manner that was, until now, reserved only for 18-year-olds who had been considered problem children?

I once spoke to a boy who did not want to continue going to English classes and his parents were really upset. Instead, he wanted to learn in the Bais Hamedrash in the afternoon. Thinking this was wrong, I called my Rosh HaYeshiva to ask for his advice. He asked me what the age of the boy was and I told him that he was 14 years old. His immediate response was, “You can’t tell a 14-year-old what to do anymore”. The Rosh HaYeshiva was not acting the part of the permissive parent but was being realistic. We then discussed the situation. What was clear from him was that 14-year-olds, even Ehrlich ones, may not feel any responsibility to follow, or feel connected, with their family values.  

What was once natural, that children considered themselves extensions of their families, today requires serious efforts on the part of parents and schools. A harmless example of this is the number of boys who decide to become chassidishe or litvish although their parents are not that way. The change may be a positive one, but it’s still a sign of not being connected.  

I believe that part of this “boundary problem” is our exposure to the outside world, in which being a free thinker is considered praiseworthy. This is in stark contrast to the Torah attitude which teaches us that it is our Chachamim who should guide us during our daily, and crisis, moments.

I believe that part of this “boundary problem” is our exposure to the outside world, in which being a free thinker is considered praiseworthy. This is in stark contrast to the Torah attitude which teaches us that it is our Chachamim who should guide us during our daily, and crisis, moments. Our Chachamim do not only remove this responsibility from us but make it clear that, even if we wanted to make our own decisions, we should not make them.

What do 14-year-olds who do not feel compelled to follow any standards do with their time? They follow their interests and what makes them feel good. There are almost no struggles within themselves about whether or not to follow those interests because they are not attached to anything. They have no allegiances.

We now see 13-year-olds smoking, (cigarettes and marijuana) excessive drinking and worse. We see 14-year-old girls with boyfriends. We see 14-year-olds talking about their right to get a job and live on their own. These examples, although not the norm, are not the uncommon exceptions they once were. Of greater significance is that, in the past, those children that demonstrated these extreme behaviors and attitudes were the angry ones. Today, many teenagers are simply doing what they want to do. This issue, although always important, is most important when the children are at crossroads in their lives, when the children are considering making changes that will publicize their beliefs that they, by themselves, can do whatever they choose.

The parent’s approach must attack the root of the problem, not the symptom. Responding to a child who is not performing must wait until they know why the child is not performing. The yeshiva student who is not doing well may have more than a lack of motivation or a lack of a desire to be Yeshivish. Instead, it may be an attitude of “That’s what I’d like to do…..There is no reason that I can’t do it”. Schools, administrators, and teachers often cannot believe that they’re just touching the surface, and therefore they may allow the real underlying problem to continue. If a student is allowed to feel disconnected, in the next step he will openly refuse to continue what he considers to be “making believe”.

If you are parents of very young children most of the solution is to avoid everything that creates the “disconnects” between yourselves and your children. How you do this is something I’ve written about in the past (You can find out more about it in our parenting classes that begins Jan 27th, 2007). However, it means assuring that the bond between yourselves and your children must stay strong regardless of their behavior.

Conceptually, staying connected with one’s children is simple. However, applying this approach can be trying. Having already discussed in detail various techniques in the past, allow me to say that sincerity, patience, a home where clear and balanced values are represented, and a clear focus of the family goals, are the foundation for close family ties.  

There is a potential pitfall worth mentioning when trying to bring up children. Parents often create a lifestyle that consists of a combination of what the parents are and what they would like to be. The parents, correctly, see themselves as growing. The children see their parents as being inconsistent.

For example, families who allow a few, only supervised, movies within their homes may have the following attitude. The parents would like to move more towards the “right” but are being tugged by their past and their children’s wants. They’re stuck in the middle. The problem is that the middle is really nowhere. When their children look for a High School, the parents, having only their children’s good in mind, send them to a school that represents where the parents want the children to be. However, the children, which until then had been living where the parents put them, in the middle, (really “nowhere”) can’t “Handle” the school.

Parents sometimes miss their children’s perspectives. Parents may be careful to have a balanced home so that their children don’t feel too much pressure. However, the children see a home in which the message says that a Torah lifestyle is good but does not always apply. With such a message at home it is understandable that if these children are placed in a school that holds firm to its values, the school is rejected by the children. Once the children begin to resent the school’s strong messages, the “disconnect” within their minds becomes more and more pronounced.

It’s not always that the parents, although well-meaning, convey the wrong message, but that the parents, being human, may be weak.  I recently received the following email from a Bais Yaakov girl following her Chanukah family gathering:

…besides the whole shabbos, I was thinking how do you get 13 kids and all of them turn out this great. but then I was like, ok this is what I really want, this is the end result that I want, but do I want to work that hard. they don’t have internet in their house, the kids read Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, all that stuff. But there are so many new things that I don’t think I could stay strong with all of that. I want to raise my family how my older brothers grew up, which is how my cousins grew up and how the family that my cousin married into grew up, but its a really hard world out there and I was exposed to much more stuff, I know I could start out strong, but I don’t know that I could keep it up. at a certain point, it keeps getting to be too much for me and I’m ready to say forget it, it’s easier to marry a working boy and let my kids do what they want and raise a more modern family. So right now I might be feeling all strong and able to daven in the morning and want to get close to Hashem and all that, but I can never hold onto it for so long…

The message this girl was conveying is that it’s easy to want to do something right. It’s even easy to do it right. But to stick with it and do it well for the 25 plus years that she will be a parent is very difficult and almost impossible.

So what does a parent do when their teenage children seem to be floundering and gravitating towards a lower element? Reviewing this is too complicated for this article. However, I would like to guide the reader into a general direction that can then be expanded within your individual home.

As was mentioned above, the root of the problem must be confirmed. If the only problem is that the children are not motivated then the primary approach is to give warmth and have patience. No extreme response should be attempted as the children are, although not inclined for growth, “solid”. It’s possible that they are not “cut out” to be Talmidei Chachamim and still may have the potential for greatness, but need more time.  At this time, allow them to grow at the pace they want and need. In this case, doing more can certainly lead to ending with less.

Don’t focus on growth. Instead, focus on consistency. There must be consistency in your children’s lives, and in their exposure to your philosophy of Yiddishkeit. Without this, it will be difficult to connect with your children.

If the parents feel that the children’s issues are more than just a lack of motivation, that there are disconnects, then they must do more. First, they must know what not to do. Don’t focus on growth. Instead, focus on consistency. There must be consistency in your children’s lives, and in their exposure to your philosophy of Yiddishkeit. Without this, it will be difficult to connect with your children. However, feeling disconnected is only a serious problem if the children act on their beliefs. Managing to keep them in a mainstream system, whether or not that system is the perfect yeshiva, is what’s needed. As they reach the age of 17-19 their maturity will help position themselves and allow them to be receptive to discussions.

Since schools take such a large part of children’s lives, parents must be very careful to find the right schools. If the children are still in the eighth grade and you are looking for a High School, or they’re in High School but considering making a change, this is a pivotal time to deal with this issue. For these children, more than for most children, choosing the right school is critical.

A misconception that parents have is that they’re afraid that their children will get worse and therefore they believe that choosing a higher quality school is the best choice. However, this is the time when a proper assessment is most important. Children who are only unmotivated should be placed in a school that is a little better than they are, and one that places an emphasis on a warm and caring staff.

However, if the children are not interested and the “disconnect” within their minds has begun, this would be the wrong approach for two reasons. The first is that if the children are “not up” to being in a higher-quality school, they will gravitate to the worse children, who will expose them anyway to what the parents are afraid of. In addition, their resentment will drive them to accelerate their downward spiral.

Instead, I generally suggest that parents choose a school based on the ability of the staff to connect with the children. Any child, who is motivated to do so, can get into trouble in any school. However, in some places, it’s easier than in others, but it’s only an issue of degrees and the amount of effort and time it takes for them to get into trouble. However, if they connect with a Rebbi/Morah to whom they “open up”, then you’ve taken away from them their desire to get into trouble. More importantly, they will have begun connecting with someone. Once they’ve begun the process of connecting even if it’s not with you, you’ve won.

What parents must remember to do is to allow the Rebbi/Morah, or any other individual, to whom the teenager has finally connected, time to do their job. Even after the teenager has begun to connect, there will still be many times that the teen will appear to regress. It’s not a process that is usually completed in a month but will take longer. However, once connected success is almost guaranteed. Just be patient.

Photo Credit: MZACHA from rgbstock.com

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