The bar/bat mitzvah is an important milestone for both child and family. It can be a sacred, spiritual experience for everyone. For many families, having a child become bar/bat mitzvah is as exciting as it is overwhelming and stressful. This is not just about one’s child coming of age but also about the family entering a new developmental stage.
As with any journey, it is helpful to have a guide who has been there before. I have had the pleasure and honor of teaching b’nai mitzvah students for many years and have learned much along the way — from the teaching, from my colleagues, from the students and from the parents. My hope is that the following Ten Commandments for the parents of b’nai mitzvah students will help make the experience one that will be more meaningful for everyone (and perhaps a bit less stressful).
Thou Shalt Communicate
The parents, child, tutor and clergy are a team with a common goal: for the young person to be well prepared, have a meaningful and motivating experience, and, ultimately, to feel confident on the big day. The team should regularly communicate so that challenges can be resolved sooner, not later. Ask to sit in on a lesson; arrange to check in at the end of lessons. This time also presents a wonderful opportunity to build your relationship with the clergy. Getting to know the tutor and clergy sends a message about your investment in the process.
Thou Shalt Help Thy Child Create a Study Schedule
While some young people are self-directed, others need focus and support. Discuss the expectations (and how to achieve them) with the tutor and your child. You may have to remind your child to study for the first weeks, but with consistency he/she likely will become increasingly responsible. When that happens, acknowledge it. Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah is about taking on responsibility (and not having your parent nag you to study). This is an opportunity to watch your child take ownership of his/her studies.
Thou Shalt Get Thy Child to B’nai Mitzvah Appointments
Be sure your child is at all tutoring and b’nai mitzvah-related appointments. When this is not possible, provide as much notice as you can. This communicates the value of the partnership and respect for everyone’s time.
Thou Shalt Learn the Blessings
Your child is studying for an average of six to eight months. All those who will be chanting blessings should also prepare. This sends the message that the bar/bat mitzvah is being taken seriously, that learning is a lifelong process and that Jewish ritual life is relevant beyond age 13. If you don’t know the blessings, ask your child to help you. This is good practice for your child as well as a great opportunity for you to learn from your child and demonstrate that this is important to you.
Thou Shalt Include Thy Child in Decisions
There are many decisions associated with the process of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Some decisions must ultimately be made by adults, but give your child the opportunity to share in discussions when appropriate. Help your child understand why you made a particular decision. Having conversations about decisions exposes your child to considerations involved in decision-making. This is part of becoming an adult.
Thou Shalt Focus as Much Energy on the Service as on the Celebration
There are many details involved in the preparation for the bar/bat mitzvah. It is not uncommon for the parents to focus on the celebration, with the assumption that the student, tutor and clergy are “worrying” about the service details. Let your child see that you are as invested — if not more invested — in the service as you are in the celebration that follows. Get engaged in the lessons, the studying, the d’var Torah writing. Ask your child questions about what he/she is studying. Your engagement will send the message that the party is a celebration of something sacred, a developmental milestone — a religious moment.
Thou Shalt Use Positive, Encouraging Language
Becoming bar/bat mitzvah can be a sacred and wonderfully positive experience, due in large part to the spoken and unspoken messages the student gets from others, especially parents. Be aware of the potential impact of your words. Comments like “You just have to get through it” or “I had to do it, now you do” do not help your child approach this as a positive experience. In families of divorce when there is conflict between the ex-spouses, shield your child from the confrontation and seek support from clergy. Your child should not be anxious about a potential conflict as the big day approaches.
Thou Shalt Enjoy the Journey
There is much to appreciate in the journey and the preparation. Seek out resources (from the clergy, tutor, friends, etc.) to enhance the journey and the day.
Thou Shalt Continue Thy Child’s Jewish Education
Your child may be an adult in the eyes of Judaism, but some decisions belong to the parents. Becoming bar/bat mitzvah marks the beginning of a new phase in Jewish life: a different connection to the Jewish community and commitment to Jewish education. There is much more for your child (and you) to learn.
Thou Shalt Remember That This Is About Thy Child
Of course it is about your whole family and your community, but when making decisions, keep in mind what this is really all about: a 13-year-old — your 13-year-old — becoming an adult in the Jewish community. Be sure that the choices you make reflect this.
Jeff Bernhardt is a Jewish educator and b’nai mitzvah tutor. He is also the author of the play “Standing at Sinai,” among others.