I once had a student who after spending a year studying in yeshiva in Israel came back to visit. We discussed how his year had gone and he described that it was very successful, he felt really inspired. In particular there was one sefer that really impacted him.
“Rabbi,” he said, “you know you should really learn this with your students; it’s an amazing book.
I looked at him and said as gently as I could: “I know Zach, in fact we learned it together right here.”
Oh, he said somewhat embarrassed, “I guess I wasn’t really listening then.”
Sometimes it can be difficult to truly connect with adolescents, as even when we think they’re listening they may not be genuinely hearing what we say.
In the previous column I suggested that one effective method to impact adolescent development was through teaching values with joy. There are several other important principles that parents and educators can utilize in trying to connect with teens.
The best way to impart any value or idea is actually not through teaching, but rather by modeling. When a person sees an ideal they have learned in action, the impression it makes is extremely powerful. If our children are taught about making healthy choices but are never shown real life examples, it remains somewhat of a theoretical concept. This holds true for any particular mitzvah, law or value we care to pass on. It is important to model the behavior being taught, and to actively try to find opportunities through which we can put concept into action.
A second aspect of modeling requires some self-analysis. Parents and educators need to look inward and ensure that they live according to the values they are trying to inculcate in their children. Adolescents are experts at detecting inconsistency. If we ask our kids to go to minyan daily and daven with kavannah but that is not something that we really do well, then, unconsciously, kids understand that the parent is not truly sincere about what s/he tells children to do. In the mind of the child s/he perceives the adult’s directions to be part of a game that everyone has to play, with the role of adults being to tell children what to do. There is no impact on the teens’ real life behavior and, to the contrary, there may be a negative impact.
Moreover, it’s not sufficient to be consistent. Adolescents need to see love and excitement for Yiidishkeit from adults. When mitzvah observance is rote and just part of the daily routine, some adolescents may follow that tradition, but many and perhaps most will not find an uninspired Judaism something they will want to follow and pass on to their own children. This is compounded by the fact that parents often display genuine passion for other interests in their lives. We have to match the excitement that we display for a championship game victory, a clutch win, or a new item of clothing, with enthusiasm for learning, Shabbos, and Yom Tov.
The same holds true in recognizing children’s accomplishments. Parents and schools need to ascribe great significance to achievements in Torah, middos, and mitzvah observance. Children should know their parents are just as proud of them when they reach a spiritual goal, as when they are when they receive a good mark on an exam. If a child finishes learning a Sefer, host a Siyyum for their friends. Show them in a public way the pride that you have in their accomplishment.
Another fundamental point in teaching values is to allow teens self-expression. The way that they observe something will probably not be a clone of the way that that their father and mother do so. Give them space. Parents and teachers need to remember that within traditional Halacha, there are valid and varied forms of practice. When children feel acceptance and validation they are much more likely to perpetuate the ideals of their mentors. When they perceive rigidity and disapproval, unfortunately, negativity becomes associated with their Judaism.
The following is a great example. A father came to speak to me about various issues he was having with his 15-year-old son who was learning in a local mesivta. One of the things that bothered him was that his son wore a black cloth yarmulke, rather than the velvet one considered mainstream by most yeshivas. He asked me how to solve the problem. My advice for the father was to learn to live with it! There’s nothing wrong with that kind of yarmulke, so as long as his son isn’t breaking any rule, why create tension over something incidental.
In order for children, and in particular adolescents, to accept and hear anything we’re saying, there has to be a building block of love. The child must feel and know that this love is unconditional, regardless of circumstance. This is crucial during the teenage years when behavior is often challenging and teens are reluctant to express feelings (especially to parents). In an ideal world we would always be able to tell and show our children how proud we are of them. But even in moments when that’s not possible, the child still needs to know that “my parents care and would do anything for me.” When a young boy or girl feels this way, the behavior we model can go a long way.
Rabbi Avraham Shulman MS, LAC is a Rebbe and Guidance Counselor at MTA. He is also an Associate Mental Health Counselor at EK Counseling in Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected] or 973-271- 3753.
By Rabbi Avraham Shulman MS, LAC