Torah Advice for Raising Teenagers Part II

by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro

The Apple Falls Not Far . . .

The best advice for parents who want to teach their children to act a certain way is for them to act that way. Children learn an incredible amount abut life from their parents, and actions speak louder, and leave a much more stronger impression, than words.

And you can't hide from your children. They have a great talent for sniffing out what their parents' real values. If you think you're hiding your true colors by stashing the television in the bedroom closet, you're mistaken. And this was the tragedy of Elisha ben Abuya.

Elisha was an ancient Talmid Chacham, a student of the great Tana R. Meyer, who went off the derech. By "off the derech" I mean he once rode a horse on Yom Kippur which came out on Shabbos, right by the Kodesh HaKodoshim in the Bais Hamikdosh.

What caused this great personality to stray so far?

There is a contradiction in Chazal about this. In one place, it says that Elisha was "turned off" from yiddishkeit because he witnessed the tongue of Chutzpis HaMeturgamon, one of the asarah harugei malchus, being dragged in the dirt in the mouth of a swine. In another place it says that Elisha's deterioration was the fault of his father, Abuyah. At Elisha's bris, Abuyah witnessed Talmidei Chachamim learning. He sensed the magnificent glory which took place in shamayim because of these Torah scholars. He decided, then and there, that "if this is the effect of Torah learning, then my son will spend his life learning." Of course, this is not the motive one should have for learning Torah, and so Elisha's Torah was ultimately doomed to failure.

Which was it: Abuyah's ulterior motives, or Elisha's disillusionment?

There is, in reality, no contradiction here. Yes, Elisha was "turned off" by witnessing the unspeakable disgrace of someone who deserved only honor. But where did Elisha acquire this weakness in his personality? Surely someone of Elisha's stature should know that Hashem's cheshbonos are beyond our understanding, and that the atrocities of this world are not a contradiction to the truth of the Torah?

But with a father like Abuyah, that's what can be expected. To Abuyah, dedication to Torah depended upon the glory it bestowed. He never taught this to Elisha, but Elisha acquired his father's imperfection just the same. For someone whose commitment to is due to the spectacular glory it brings, seeing the horrifying disgrace of a godol hador can be devastating.

Elisha went off the derech because he was brought up by a man with an inadequate attitude toward Torah learning. Deep down, he acquired that attitude himself, and it positioned him for failure.1

The "Do as I say and not as I do" parent dooms his children not only because of the hypocrisy inherent in his attitude, but because parents' actions leave an impression on children stronger than words can tell.

Clarify the Issues

A principal of a girls' seminary once asked me about a prospective student from my neighborhood. He was concerned because, at the admissions interview, he asked her about something like movies or bobby socks (I forget exactly) and she answered that she feels "everyone should decide on their own." That was not the answer he wanted to hear, so he asked me what I know about this girl's frumkeit.

I told him that in the neighborhood where this girl grew up, there is a mixture of all kinds of Orthodox Jews, which presents parents with a dilemma. You don't let your daughter talk to boys / go to movies / dress a certain way, but your next-door neighbor does. You don't want your daughter to learn from the frum family that lives next door, but neither do you want her to "look down" on other Jews. So what do you tell her when she asks why she can't do such-and-such but so-and-so next door can?

The seminary principal answered that he would say to the girl that it's like, say, gebrukts. Some people eat it, but some don't. But he wouldn't outright say that the neighbor is doing something wrong.

"Now you understand the girl's answer," I said. That is exactly what the girl meant.

I am not suggesting what standards parents should use to teach their children right from wrong. But whatever you feel is right and wrong, should be made clear to your children. Children who grow up thinking that having a boyfriend is a "different nusach" will be quite confused, frustrated, and annoyed, when they grow up only to have their parents "look down" on them for adopting that other nusach. They will take it as sinas chinam, when you try to convince them that what once was a legitimate, albeit different, form of frumkeit is, because they try to embrace it, worthy of your scorn.

If your daughter wanted to marry someone who ate gebrokts, you might not mind; but if she wanted to marry someone with "other standards" of frumkeit, you would. After teaching her all her life that those other standards are just "gebrokst", go try telling her that she can't go out with someone who follows those standards.

Precision is key in chinuch. If you feel something is downright wrong, but you tell your children it is merely "different", or "not ours", you are setting them up for a fall later on.

It is possible to teach children that right is right and wrong is wrong, without making them into holier-than-thou pseudo-kanaim. Tell them the truth: what your friend is doing is wrong; you should not learn from them. But they are still 100% bonafide frumme yidden and as such are included in the Mitzvah of v'ohavta l'reachah komochah. One has nothing to do with the other.

More often than not, teenagers who rebel against their families' standards of frumkeit (whatever those standards may be) use as their favorite peice of ammunition the claim that "If they ("they" are Orthodox Jews of another standard) can do it, why can't I?" I have found than when this happens, the parents usually never taught their children that such-and-such is actually wrong. That "we don't do it", maybe; but not wrong. But by then it's often too late.