‘Independent, Rebellious, And, to Be Honest, a Bit Crazy’

“Your son is independent, rebellious, and, to be honest, a bit crazy.” These are words that no parent wants to hear. If there is one thing that all adults agree on, it is that children should be obedient, compliant, and submissive to adults. This expectation expresses itself regularly in the life of children.

Take for example a Chol Hamoed trip location that has been chosen and agreed upon by most members of a family. Inevitably someone, usually the youngest and smallest, must sit in the “back-back” seat of the van for the duration of what might be a long trip. In situations such as these the adults often wish the child would just go along with the expectation placed on them by adults. Yet, the child may see the circumstances quite differently and push back. In such circumstances, his independent thinking is unlikely to be welcomed by his parents.

Consideration of the actions of the Chanukah heroes, the Chashmona’im, may put our perspective of these characteristics in a different light. Leading up to the miracle of Chanukah, the situation was quite bleak for the Yidden. The Greek society was oppressive in many ways. Their physical domination and the lure of their sophisticated and aesthetically appealing culture left Klal Yisrael depleted of hope for its future continuity. The Jews had been conquered, and subsequently, almost every expression of kedushah had been lost. They had been enveloped by a society that was contrary to Torah values.

Many Jews began to assimilate and adopt those foreign values. Who would think that the mighty Greeks could be defeated? How could this process of both physical and spiritual annihilation ever be stopped? The Jewish people did not have any resources to fight back. Physically, they were few and weak, and their social capital was equally compromised.

Yet, a small number of Yidden struck out with an independent and rebellious spirit to wage a war that we can presume no military strategist or social scientist would have advised. And baruch Hashem that they did, for without their seemingly irrational zeal, what would have become of the Jewish People?

The Chashmona’im looked at a status quo they found unacceptable and took action, while society, logic, and precedent told them not to. They decided that as scary and daunting as the task ahead was, it was better than any alternative.

When a child questions our authority, they are doing so for a reason. Whether or not this reason is acceptable and justified to us, something has pushed them to question their status quo. They believe that what they are experiencing is unacceptable and are willing to take action to fix the situation, even at their own peril.

The action they are taking may very well be “independent, rebellious and, to be honest, a bit crazy,” and it very well might warrant discipline. At the same time, let us pause to recognize that while we must teach our children when and where to take action, the fundamental idea of taking action in response to what we see as a wrong or need is something to preserve.

I have no doubt that many veteran mechanchim would agree that some of their most challenging talmidim, those that always seemed ready to question us and defy our standard expectations, are the very ones who grew up and changed our world. As I once heard from a seasoned Rebbi — those students who were “out-standing,” (that is, often standing outside the classroom) often go on to be truly “outstanding” in their accomplishments.

One of the themes of Chanukah is never to give up in the face of an overwhelming and challenging status quo. It is precisely these situations that develop the middah of taking action where it is called for.

Perhaps with this in mind, we can offer yet another novel answer to the famous question posed by the Beis Yosef as to why Chanukah lasts eight days if the oil’s burning was only supernatural for seven of those days. Perhaps the very fact that the Chashmona’im took action and lit the first candle despite the knowledge that according to the natural order of things it could only burn for one day is a reason enough to celebrate.

Children live in a world controlled by others. They are told how to spend their time, what behaviors they may or may not do, what and when to eat and much more.

Some children go along with these expectations and do not question them. They wear a coat even though they are hot, review math problems they think they already have mastered, or sit quietly in a seat they find uncomfortable.

But if you have a child who does not react passively to these situations, despite the difficulties along the way, you may have reason to celebrate. This very child may be preparing to change the world.

As the Menahel of a growing and vibrant day school, I often think back to the great early leaders in American Orthodox Jewry. Fifty years ago, our numbers were small and while Orthodoxy struggled to survive, our Conservative and Reform brethren were building large temples with the capacity to seat huge crowds. The frum community was largely comprised of poor immigrants trying to recover from the dark shadow of the Holocaust.

It must have taken real “Independent, rebellious and, to be honest, a bit crazy” leaders to open frum shuls, organizations, yeshivos, and Bais Yaakovs. They took on financial achrayus to build a Torah infrastructure when the prevailing winds in society indicated Orthodoxy was not sustainable.

My intention here is not to excuse disobedient or disrespectful behavior. Rather it is to pause and dig a bit deeper to understand an aspect of the underlying reality of these behaviors and the positive potential that lies therein.

It is our job as parents or educators to help children learn the differences between healthy and appropriate objections and those which are not acceptable. We must also keep in mind that behaviors, information, and attitudes can be taught to children over time, but teaching children to believe that they have the power to change their world is much harder to accomplish. We need our future leaders to believe that they can make an impact on their own families and communities, and even all of Klal Yisrael and the world.

When children question our authority and ask us, “Why do I have to act or be that way?” they are displaying this kind of thinking. When redirecting them, it may be advisable to celebrate their passion, while simultaneously helping them learn more effective ways to communicate. Validating a child by simply saying “I am so happy that you are expressing your needs, how can we find a way to make it work for you and the others?” can be an effective intervention.

Let’s return to Chol Hamoed trip planning. As hard as it is, perhaps, we can celebrate when that one child is not ready to settle as quickly as others. Adults have a hard time accepting travel delays, bad food service and uncomfortable seating on planes. When a child expresses this discomfort in their language, in reality, it is an objection to an unsatisfactory status quo.

When this occurs, instead of trying to squash the child’s independence, it may be a good time to talk about how to channel that attitude in a positive way. And finally, when a parent hears that a child is “independent, rebellious and, to be honest, a bit crazy,” maybe we can find comfort in knowing that the child might have the same spirit that inspired the Chashmona’im.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, Ed.D., is the Head of School at Yeshivah Torat Emet in Houston, Texas, and serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.

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