This weekend, I made a trip up to YU for the annual SOY Seforim sale. One of the books that I picked up is Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese, which I am finding truly fascinating. So far, I've finished the first seventy pages or so and am eagerly looking forward to the rest.
One of the main points that Ms. Margolese makes early in the book is that people leave observant Judaism not because of intellectual issues (Science/Torah and the like), but primarily because of emotional issues. Adolescents can gain a negative emotional view of Judaism from parents, teachers, school administrators and friends. These factors together can contribute to a person's decision to "ditch" observance of the mitzvos as they get older - regardless of any belief in the historicity of the Revelation at Sinai or the Creation story as told in B'raishis (Genesis).
One of the factors that is brought up is the need of children to feel loved unconditionally. She brings a few anecdotes of people who felt that their parents' love for them was conditional on the level of their observance (whether that was actually the case or not). Because they felt that their parents wouldn't love them as much if they weren't observant, Judaism developed as a negative in their minds as adolescents and was (in their own admissions) a part of the reason that they strayed from observance of the mitzvos.
I can certainly understand the need for a child (including adolescents) to feel that they are loved without reservation. As a child, friends may come and go, teachers may be good one year and bad the next, this year's well-loved or well-hated principal may be out the door next year, but parents (barring the truly drastic of life events) are just about the only constants in a child's life. They are (or should be) the one place that a child knows that they can turn to no matter how bad things become. Parents are that last thrown life preserver in a child's life when stormy seas threaten to engulf them. In short, children need to know that when the chips are down, their parents are there for them.
On the other hand, there is much to be said for maintaining standards and expectations of a child. One example that Ms. Margolese brings is of a girl whose father would ask her in the morning if she davened. If she replied no, then he would tell her to go daven. However, since she was not particularly interested in davening, she would simply go up to her room, read for about half an hour, and then come back down and tell her father that she davened.
Now, as parents, I do believe that we have a right (and indeed a responsibility) to set standards and expectations for our children. We have an obligation to tell them what behavior is considered acceptable and which is not considered acceptable. Who among us wouldn't try to reprimand our teens if they were caught stealing? Certainly we would go about it in different ways -- one parent may try the "soft approach," another parent a stricter approach and yet another with a mixed message. Not all responses are valid or correct, of course, but we would all agree that *some* measures are called for. Only the most irresponsible parents would take no action at all.
Well, just as we impose standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro (relationships between people), we also set standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam lamakom (relationships between man and God). When my children are older, they will have to know, for example, that I will not allow them to bring chametz into the house on Pesach. They will know that I expect them to daven and learn every day. I expect him not to sacrifice his little sister to Molech. In short, I expect a certain minimum commitment to the observance of the mitzvos. Of course, if he does more -- all the more power to him; but a minimum is expected. I believe that children need standards in order to achieve... and that applies to all realms, academic, behavioral, religious, extra-curricular, you name it.
Of course, the question then becomes how to express your expectations and make them stick without endangering the security of the child's knowledge of the parent's unconditional love. You can't just sit your kid down and tell him "Walter*, we expect you to do A, B and C, but even if you don't we still love you," because such a statement lacks the force that is necessary to tell the kid what you expect of him. It's weasly and wishy-washy.
Of course, as adults, we can separate love and approval as two separate concepts, but I'm not so certain that most adolescents can emotionally make that distinction. You can try to explain it to them, but I don't know if (at the younger ages of adolescence especially) they can really distinguish between the two. I can tell an adult that I may still love him or her even if I don't accept what they are doing. Heck, I love my mother, but I strongly disapprove of her life-long smoking habit. She knows my feelings on the matter of her smoking -- she has for a long, long time, but she also knows that I love her unconditionally. But if I ever (God forbid) caught my kid smoking (something I don't expect too -- I think we've well ingrained the anti-smoking message into our kids), I could probably tell him the same thing I tell my mother, but I don't think he'd react the same way - one is a teen and the other is nearing sixty. My mother is much, much more mature than my son - and can understand disapproval of an action much better than Walter can.
In the end, we don't want our children to go off the derech. I think that among those of us that are observant, having our children become observant is a major goal in life - if not (for some) the most important goal. But we don't want to create an atmosphere that is so overbearing that the child will rebel at the first opportunity. We want to infuse them with a Yiddishkeit that is positive, not negative. On the other hand, we don't want to give blanket approval for any and all behavior. Adoniyah turned out the way he did, the Navi tells us, because Dovid never bothered to correct him on his behavior. As usual, there has to be a happy medium somewhere in the middle. It's up to us to find that exact message.
* No, Walter isn't our son's name. But it is one of any number of nicknames that we sometimes call our kids.