November 27, 2003
Limits Needed to Set Path for Youths
A few weeks ago, three students at Milken Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles were expelled for making a sexually explicit video of themselves that was eventually seen by members of the student community. Many parents and teachers in the Jewish community have expressed confusion at how educated Jewish students at a school like Milken did what they did.
But to think that what happened at Milken is isolated to the particulars of the parent-child relationships of the families involved is myopic -- and too easy. To be sure, such behavior is not widespread in our children's communities. But we can be relatively certain that for every incident brought to light, many more are hidden in the shadows.
Parents and teachers -- really all adults -- owe it to those three teenagers to take some responsibility for what happened. Those teenagers grew up in the society we created.
We are the adults. They are the kids. We owe it to them to enter the darkness of our confusion and investigate the source of what happens in our midst. We must ask whether what happened is indicative of other things gone awry.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of Piaseczno, in early 20th century Poland, wrote a book of educational philosophy called, "Chovat Hatalmidim" ("The Student's Obligation") to address the problem of young Jews leaving the yeshivot for the tempting world of modernity. He shared our problem: How do we teach children to be their best selves amidst a culture of overwhelming power?
His diagnosis of the problem is as follows: "Today's youth consider themselves grown up before their time ... they have come to see themselves as grown up and independent -- in their opinions and in their desires -- though their mind is still upside down and their desires unripe and bitter.... This trait causes harm [because] it causes the child to see any guide, teacher, or educator as a foreign overlord who has come to rule over him with a strong hand, and to strip him of his independent mind and will."
Relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, adults and youth, this generation and the next are complicated. Each of us wants to nurture teens, to help them navigate the complex web of ideas and emotions that define adolescence. Helping them is hardest when it means risking our children's friendship so we can keep being their parent.
I remember having a fight with my father when I was 15 years old. As happens in most parent-teenager relationships, it was not unheard of for us to have a disagreement turn heated and eventually end with us yelling at each other.
But this fight ended differently. At the end of this fight, I got so upset at something my dad said (sadly, today I do not even remember what it was he said or even what we were fighting about), I told him, "screw you."
What happened next I do remember: My father started to kick me out of the house. I managed to apologize quickly enough to avoid eviction, but my dad made it very clear to me that if I was going to speak that way, I was not going to stay in his home.
"You may speak to your friends that way, but you will not use that kind of language with me. I am your father. I am not one of your friends."
"That's right!" I screamed, "you're not my friend." I said these painful words with all the self-righteous accusation I could muster, hoping to win the argument by making my dad feel that he had failed me. His response was one I never expected and have yet to forget.
"That's right," he said. "I'm not your friend. But I am your father. You should feel lucky that you have a father and not just a friend."
I believe Rabbi Shapira would have agreed. Now, so do I. I was growing up too fast, and though I craved someone who would make me feel understood, what I needed most in that moment were limits, even at the cost of friendship.
I saw my father as "a foreign overlord" (and tried to treat him like one), but I did not need another person with whom to be lost. I needed someone who knew who he was, against whom I could begin to see the contours of my own self becoming.
But to say that I needed a father, not a friend, was also a false distinction, a straw man I made up to win a petty argument. True friends -- like our parents -- must teach us, love us and help us to grow not by accepting who we are but by sensing something of our essence, our hope, something of who we can be and lifting us beyond ourselves. They succeed not by shying away from a fight, but by being willing to risk what is for what can be.
Parenting this way is painful and tiring. The midrash teaches that words of critique are like bees -- they hurt the one who is stung but kill the one who stings.
I love my sons from a place of indescribable depth and they know it. When I rebuke one of them, I feel it for days. I simply hate it. It takes a heavy toll I bear with me as I walk on the street.
I am not alone -- it is a burden we must all help to bear: parents, grandparents, teachers and God. But we must do so because we are neither our children's parents nor their friends if we fail to tell them when they are wrong.
"As children become adolescents, even the best parents struggle as their teenagers are influenced by their peers and the popular culture we adults are creating for them. A few weeks ago, three Jewish teenagers learned that it was unacceptable to make a sexually explicit film of themselves. They learned our society has limits about what is acceptable to do with our bodies at a young age in public. They should have known better. But could it be that they were only doing what our society never told them was wrong?
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center.