The Importance of Learning to Conform

Q: Our 14-year-old daughter has unfortunately been acting up in school in recent months. One issue is that she’s been just a little bit too chutzpadig when speaking to school staff — and now the hanhalah has threatened that they may not let her come back next year. We don’t have many options for other schools nearby, as our city has only a small frum population.

My daughter was given until the end of the school year to “shape up.” But what can a person do in seven weeks? We were given this ultimatum just before Pesach break, and it’s an overwhelming challenge.

I am not criticizing the school; I know they have standards to maintain. But in my daughter’s view they are too stringent. When they said they didn’t like the shoes she was wearing, she told me she views them as being “small-minded.” My daughter has even begun to resent wearing a uniform every day.

The school feels she interrupts her teachers too much during class, and that this reflects chutzpah rather than a desire to learn.

My daughter does want to remain in this school, as she has many friends in her class. And there is one teacher my daughter likes, and this teacher thinks well of her, too.

Our Rav has been very supportive of us, and feels that we should try as much as possible to work with the school to keep her there. Any ideas on how we should approach this?

A: Often the tools teenagers need to deal with the adults in their lives are the same tools they will need in their future lives — tools that help them adapt and conform to any adult society.The key words to focus on with your child are not “right” and “wrong” or “fair” and “unfair,” but rather what is “comfortable” for the person that your child needs to work with. Much of life might appear unfair to your daughter, but the more a person is aware of andsensitive to authority’s unique (and sometimes idiosyncratic) behavior, the easier their life will be.

Is your daughter motivated to work with the school administration? You need to discuss the reality of dealing with those in positions of authority and how all people need to conform to rules — no matter how inconsequential they may seem to her.

Just as people need to learn social skills in order to make others feel “comfortable” in any society (and what is comfortable in our culture is not necessarily so for another), there are things that are not right or wrong, but that conform to proper decorum.

Some teachers are bothered by students calling out because they feel it disrupts the class, and they themselves lose their train of thought. Some think that it shows disrespect towards the teacher. But there are others who feel that it shows that the child is enthusiastic about the topic being discussed. Neither teacher is right or wrong.

Your daughter (and all teens) need to integrate a more gray — not black or white — vision of the world in order to become more tolerant of others.

It is important to stress that if there happens to be a particularly problematic person on the school staff, that is a reflection of their own lack of personal middos and character development, not a reflection of Torah values. This is often an area where a teenager can have confusion about Yiddishkeit. You can give the mashal of someone taking a shower — only he and Hashem know if he’s washed himself with soap and gotten clean, or if he just used the water to get wet. The Torah is perfect, but only the person and Hashem know if it’s being applied to their lives.

If the school has issues with the type of shoes your daughter wears, you can actually show them the shoes she will wear before she comes into school — this year and next year.

You need to speak to the one teacher that she likes and ask that she speak to the principal on your daughter’s behalf and mention specific examples of how she is a great asset to the class.

You need to point out to your daughter how people in various walks of life wear “uniforms” — be it the repairman in overalls or the businessman in a three-piece suit. Our talmidos wear uniforms to avoid competition among classmates and to remind us that we are all part of one mission of kedushah.

It is of extreme importance that she not feel that she is being thrown out of school. The destruction of self-esteem and the distrust of adults that result cannot be overestimated. As a therapist, this is perhaps the main achievement that I have worked on throughout my years of practice, as I see the immense repercussions of such a circumstance. B’hatzlachah.