rubberpaw/Flickr Creative Commons License
A scroll of the Torah at the Masonic Village in Elizabethtown, PA, USA.
Nancy, a single mother, is telling me about Theo, her wildly accomplished son. He’s a high school junior, a biathlete, the top biology student in his grade, an award-winning nature photographer . . . and, in her eyes, an arrogant sourpuss:
He’s so rude. Last week I woke up early to make him a special breakfast: chocolate chip pancakes. And he just stared down at the plate and said, “You know I don’t eat this junk.” Then he pulled out a Clif bar from the kitchen cabinet and ate it on his way out the door. He didn’t even say good-bye.
But at least that morning he was awake! Usually he oversleeps. I bought him two alarm clocks. One is called the Sonic Boom. It shakes the whole house. The other is on wheels and rolls away when the alarm rings so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. But he doesn’t get up. What am I supposed to do? Let him miss first period? I usually have to shake him awake, and then he yells, “Get out of my room!”
I don’t know what to say when he’s so awful. Growing up, I would have never treated my parents like this.
There was a time when a young person rose when an adult entered the room, would not considering calling adults by their first names, and automatically came to the door to pick up a date. I am not nostalgic for this time. Socially acceptable behavior also included discrimination of every sort, sweeping family problems under the rug, and establishing household order through intimidation and submissive deference to Dad the All-Knowing Patriarch.
Most parents I see want to raise their teens with greater compassion and sensitivity than they received while growing up. As a result, our children are chattier, cozier, and more direct with us—and they are also ruder. As adolescence sets in and they are driven to separate from us, they push us away with their attitude, behavior, and facial expressions. They say “I hate you!” or “I don’t care what you think!” Sometimes they call us names. Within reasonable limits, these are exasperating but healthy signs of our more open, relaxed relationships. Our children feel confident that they can perform the painful work of weaning themselves from Mom and Dad without losing our love. Which leaves today’s parents with a dilemma: How do we respect our teenagers’ need to separate from us while fulfilling our parental duty to teach them respect for others?
It is a duty, and a sacred one. Respect for others is at the core of Jewish teachings. The great Rabbi Hillel was once asked, “If you could teach all of Judaism while standing on one foot, what would you say?” Hillel responded, “Treat your neighbors as yourself.” Always, Judaism stresses deed before creed. Your actions, not your beliefs, are the true measure of your character. This is one reason God gave us laws—the 613 mitzvot that cover every aspect of life, especially mutual kindness. Some examples: We are required to give charity according to our means. We may not withhold an employee’s wages beyond payday. We must not muzzle a beast who is working in produce that it can eat and enjoy. Farmers must leave an unreaped corner of the field for the poor. Judaism teaches that whether a person is considerate of others is as important as whether he prays daily. We are the sum of our actions, and most of our actions are small deeds, not large gestures.
Torah teaches us that parents are God’s holy stand-ins. This means that parents are responsible for placing respect and consideration at the center of the family mission. They need to devote as much attention, intelligence, and sensitivity to their teen’s treatment of others as they do to their child’s schooling or health. Ideally, parents will teach their children to be compassionate without becoming martyrs, to be forthright without being obnoxious.
How, then, does a compassionate parental leader teach respect? A successful strategy for teaching respect involves what may feel like an inhuman amount of levelheaded patience, tolerance, and serenity on your part. You have to let teens do their work of separation knowing that they are keenly studying your every move. They will learn more than you can imagine by watching how you define the standards of respect that matter most to you; by your thoughtful, authoritative reaction when they inevitably challenge those standards; and by your own practice of generosity toward them, even when they don’t deserve it.