Sharing our Children’s Interests

Q: I have two teenage sons, ages 14 and 17, who go to out-of-town mesivtaos. We live in a small city where post-elementary school chinuch is limited, necessitating the decision to have our boys go away. At this point, my wife is concerned about my relationship with them.

I know that dealing with teenagers can be challenging, but it seems I have different expectations of our sons as compared to our daughters.

Our daughters are married now. Whatever time and attention I gave them seems to have been good enough for them, and they basically don’t have complaints about their childhood. However, our sons have a different perspective. They tell my wife that I only made time for them for activities connected to Yiddishkeit — such as learning or davening — and there were strings attached to those relationships, as well.

What can I say? This is how my father behaved towards me. His true nachas came from Yiddishkeit, and he didn’t pretend to have an interest in sports or other activities.

My wife is concerned that if the father/son relationship is weak, it will affect the boys adversely in the future — be it in their Torah observance or our relationship with them. I’m not sure if she is overreacting.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

A: Each generation has its own challenges, and one of ours is raising children who question things we would never have verbalized to our parents. Denying this reality and challenging the validity of their attitude is unhelpful, for the questions and disgruntlement will still remain.

I don’t know to what extent your relationship with your sons was focused on Yiddishkeit alone. However, that is not the issue here. If this is your sons’ subjective reality, this is what you have to work with.

Whether in the secular or religious world, men receive honor through their work and monetary accomplishments; while growing up, they may have been looked up to by their peers for their sports acumen.

Maybe your sons identify you with the expectations of the “male world” around them. Or perhaps their attitude reflects their own self-expectations, which may be too perfectionistic for their own comfort. In any case, you need to ask yourself how you can take practical steps to work on your relationship with them.

You need not show interest in sports, but you do need to find some common denominator of shared interests, or words that reflect your general concern for their welfare. Saying that such words are not your style and your sons will know they’re contrived is not an answer. Interpersonal responses to others may involve changes on your part and behaving in a way that will seem unnatural to you. Yet, continuing to take the same actions you have taken until now will only produce the same undesirable results.

Some fathers need to show more affection to their sons. Some parents need to verbalize positive specific compliments to their children, reflecting their essence — not their test-taking ability or physical appearance. Children should feel unconditional love from their parents.