Q: Until my daughter turned 14, I thought I was basically a good parent. Our communication had been fairly good; I liked her friends and appreciated her unique personality. In recent weeks, however, she has begun to question everything and I feel like I have to constantly stop and think how and what to answer her. She takes nothing for granted, and no answer is good enough. Her complaints about teachers have increased, and she continually tells me how everything is unfair. What makes it difficult is that I often agree with her, but don’t say it. Many things in this world seem unfair. She is beginning to refuse to do what I ask her. Any ideas about what I can do?
A: The time we are really tested regarding instilling ruchniyus in our children is when they reach their teenage years. In general, it is essential for a child to feel the importance of following the Torah as a gift for his or her individual neshamah, rather than merely following in the footsteps of a person’s family. The reason for this is that if a child is angry enough at his or her parents for any reason, s/he will identify Yiddishkeit as an extension of the parents and reject it as part of a rebellion.
If a child doesn’t want to bentch, for example, the child should be told that she is going to lose an opportunity to “give nachas to Hashem.” A parent can tell an older child, “Your neshamah is calling you to do this mitzvah. None of us can hear this request, but it’s still happening.” By saying this, a parent separates parental influence from Torah observance. There is no need to compare an imperfect parent to a perfect Torah.
In a similar vein, Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, would not force a child to make a brachah, but would instead describe in great detail the tumult in Shamayim as thousands of malachim proclaim the praises of Hashem. And yet, when a person makes a brachah, everything becomes suddenly quiet in the world of the malachim, so that the brachah can pass directly to the Kisei Hakavod, where it brings immeasurable pleasure to Hashem Himself. (Reb Yaakov, Yonason Rosenblum, 1993)
In general, when children become teenagers, they begin to forge their own identities. Part of the process of creating a unique being involves questioning the role model of a parent and challenging what teenagers often call “hypocrisy.” On a simple level, a child questions those who speak of lofty concepts but their actions don’t always conform to the ideal. “How could you do ‘this’ if you believe and say ‘that’?” Yet only tzaddikim gemurim have their thoughts and actions so closely in sync with each other all the time.
Teenagers often complain of imperfection. Sometimes a teacher may speak often of a topic that she is working on herself. She may be teaching this to help strengthen herself. If we were to find teachers who fully embody all the principles of Yiddishkeit, we would have very few teachers available to teach! It is often difficult to accept human limitations. Unfortunately, teenagers in particular want to see themselves as unconquerable, and cannot always accept another’s limitations. In reality, any society is full of imperfect human beings, interpersonal flaws, and desire for kavod.
When a child speaks of dishonesty or unfairness from adults, these feelings need to be listened to, and a parent can empathize and describe how they have experienced this, as well. In relation to shalom bayis, sometimes parents show diverse attitudes towards Yiddishkeit, which can create confusion in children. By rebelling, a child may be representing this state of confusion.
Though hishtadlus is always needed in the chinuch of our children, the tefillos of a parent and requests for siyatta diShmaya truly pierce the Shaarei Shamayim.
May your sincere efforts create only clearly positive outcomes.