If ever there was a Biblical equivalent of the phrase “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” it would be “chanoch lana’ar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimena.” This pasuk instructs us to teach a child based on who he or she is (“according to his way”) because he or she will never fully change (“also, when he gets older, he won’t deviate from it”). In other words, if we cannot change certain aspects of a child’s persona, we must adapt our chinuch to fit these traits.
This pearl of wisdom from Shlomo HaMelech can be interpreted in one of two ways. We can view the pasuk as offering us practical advice: People are motivated differently, requiring us to develop and utilize a range of tools to get various individuals to the same place. On the other hand, King Solomon may be demanding an ethic of diversity. He may be identifying individualism as an essential aspect of Hashem’s creation of humanity, compelling us to cultivate children to be as different as each is meant to be. The latter approach is intimately connected to how many perceive and practice Modern Orthodoxy.
One of the defining qualities unique to those who identify as “Modern Orthodox” is the general embracing of secular culture. This fact is generally undisputed by most with opinions on the matter. However, this tenet requires explanation. Why is embracing culture significant? Why do serious Modern Orthodox Jews study philosophy, listen to secular music, read poetry, enjoy movies, study history, celebrate art and follow sports, while simultaneously living lives of Torah and mitzvot? Why might these same Jews encourage their children to express themselves in similar ways?
A large component of this phenomenon is the celebration of humanity. Hashem created humankind with the capacity to imagine, communicate, emote and create. When people use these qualities to generate art, music and great writing, they are tapping into something godly within themselves. Similarly, those who admire such efforts express appreciation for the inherent Godliness in human creativity. Each expression of humanity is also a demonstration of individuality. The artist, poet and songwriter conveys his or her unique human experience through a specific medium.
This brings us to middle school. Thinking about middle school requires us to come face to face with the concept of individuality. The preadolescent years begin the awkward struggle toward selfhood. Tweens begin to wonder about purpose, meaning and who they are. The word “why” shifts from curiosity to challenge, and “how does this affect my life?” becomes a very popular question at school. Students begin to desire meaningful learning experiences and crave independence. This can result in a clash between school and student, between parent and child. What should our approach be?
The answers to this question may break down along ideological lines. Those of us raising our children as Modern Orthodox have made a decision about individuality, whether we know it or not. We are raising our children to value creativity, self-expression and humanity. Our definition of “what Hashem wants from us” is not as cut and dry and we don’t always err on the side of modesty, religious conservatism or spiritual caution (despite all the pitfalls). This being the case, we cannot expect our adolescent children to suppress their newfound sense of individuality. We cannot be as restrictive as other groups may be with this age group; it is not how we have operated until now. As a result, we should help our burgeoning adolescents embrace and cultivate their selfhood in a healthy way.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Our children often struggle with this new aspect of their personalities; they challenge authority, get bored with Torah learning and may regress in their desire to perform mitzvot. This scares us to death. How can an approaching (or newly minted) bar or bat mitzvah act this way? What have we done? Why haven’t we sheltered our children more? Looks like the “others” have it right. Their boys are probably reciting masechtot full of mishnayot by heart, and their girls are definitely not fighting with their mothers over skirt length.
This trauma (yes, trauma) that parents experience can be paralyzing. It can hold us back from granting our children the slack they need to navigate these difficult years. In a panic, we attempt to suppress and control instead of letting children explore and express. We say “yes, but” instead of saying “tell me more” or “if that’s what you think is right, go for it.” We let predetermined outcomes define success and use whatever (hopefully positive and well-meaning) means necessary to get our children there.
While this approach might be fitting for some communities (and many individual children within our community), it may not be the right fit for the Modern Orthodox community on the whole. Children raised (explicitly or implicitly) with one set of values cannot be asked to do an about-face at the exact moment they start to become who they are being raised to be. Doing so invites cynicism and negativity to fill the space reserved for trust and appreciation in the hearts of our children. We must be careful not to conflate what our children’s best interests are with what makes us most comfortable.
To concretize this a bit, let’s take a look at tefillah. Children who have spent five years happily singing Modeh Ani through Aleinu may suddenly (from our perspective, at least) begin to lose enthusiasm for tefillah. A student may start talking during Shacharit, begin putting his or her head down or simply sit there without opening a siddur. Our natural response might be to adjust the general strategy of “making tefillah exciting.” We may try new tunes, tell inspiring stories or add extra enthusiasm to our own tefillot to lead by example. This approach might be (or might not be) like prescribing amoxicillin for a headache; it displays (well-intentioned) ignorance of the root problem.
A student in this situation might be experiencing what we have been discussing. “Why can’t we use our own words?” “How does tefillah benefit my life?” “If I don’t feel anything when I daven, why should I?” While we might have responses for these challenges, our “yes, but” can be counterproductive. The right approach might be to advise a student to use his or her own words for parts of tefillah, to sit and read through the English translation instead of davening, or to skip the parts of tefillah that are less inspiring to this student. So that students don’t get the idea that parts of Judaism are optional, we should be clear with each student as to why we are giving some slack. Either way, a dose of patience and understanding might be what is needed, especially at this age.
(To be clear, I am not prescribing this as the approach for any one child. I am simply suggesting an avenue of thought I believe is not considered even close to enough. This is especially true for schools, where the ratio of adult to child far outstrips the parent-child ratio in families. Institutional policy must take into account what is more effective on the whole, especially when dealing with children, who tend to act differently with groups of peers than at home.)
Raising inspired, observant and happy children is not easy, nor is it meant to be. Parents love children fiercely and teachers of Torah often intertwine their own self-worth with the spiritual growth of their students. As painful as it may be when our children and students challenge, question and deviate, it is part of a longer process. If we value self-actualization and personal growth, we have to be willing to step back and let Hashem’s nature take its course. May each ounce of worry over our children transform into a merit for living the life Hashem intended for them.
By Yair Daar
Rav Yair Daar is the assistant principal at Yeshivat He’Atid.