Way Out-of-Town Chinuch

Q: I’m having problems with the chinuch of my two sons, ages 11 and 15. They are both very strong-minded and often give me a hard time when I come home from work and want to learn with them. I feel like the younger son is simply imitating his older brother’s attitude.

They both attend a special school. The older boy has real learning problems, and we put his younger brother there, too, hoping to nip in the bud the behavioral problems he began having at a young age.

Baruch Hashem, both boys are doing well in school. However, at home, every religious thing that I request of them has become a chore. Unfortunately, our neighborhood is not very religiously observant, and it’s hard for them to find friends with a similar mindset to ours. I’m aware that this issue just complicates matters.

My older son doesn’t read parts of davening because his kriah is very poor. I don’t blame him for being frustrated when reading is so hard for him. However, when he practices reading with me at night, he’s learning to memorize korbanos and daven portions that he would otherwise not recite publicly.

I’m at my wits’ end and I’ve reached the point that I threaten them with punishment if they don’t listen to my requests. My youngest gets punished by not being allowed to sleep at friends’ houses (though they are good boys). They both lose time on their electronics if they don’t learn or do what I’m requesting for their religious benefit.

What is a better way to work with him? I feel like I’m getting nowhere.

A: When dealing with teenagers, a parent needs to avoid power struggles. Often, when people (especially teenagers) feel forced to do something, it’s their knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite. This is not necessarily a rational reaction, but many of us can relate to it, even as mature adults.

If your sons are not responding appropriately to your requests, you need to sit down with them at a neutral time (not when you are in the midst of a conflict) and have an open-ended, non-judgmental conversation. The goal is not to speak as “equals,” but to speak from your heart. Men are often socialized not to be vulnerable with others — as if this reflects weakness. Yet our Gedolim never hesitated to show emotion to accomplish great things.

It would probably be best to speak to each child individually (as you have a different relationship with each one) and problem-solve how to improve your relationship. People who are forced to learn rarely come to ahavas haTorah (at least in this generation). You need to stress your enjoyment when learning with them and wonder if the quality of the time spent together could improve. Perhaps you could learn something different that they would prefer. Maybe a type of reward could be involved.

If you cannot make headway using the above suggestions, it might be beneficial to get someone else to learn with your sons. If money is an issue, you could use a bartering system in which you help the tutor in some way, especially if the tutor is young and doesn’t do this for parnassah.

Punishing a child by withholding privileges is not going to inspire him. If you want your child to memorize korbanos, you could write that part of tefillah on index cards, and test him for a few minutes — if he doesn’t mind being tested. You can tape someone’s voice saying korbanos, and have him memorize it that way. You can explain to him that davening can be compared to a muscle. The more he exercises his lips to familiarize himself with the words, the easier it will become for him. You want him to be familiar with all of the siddur, and not feel like an outsider.

Hatzlachah in this most sensitive and worthwhile endeavor!