Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Teens, Boundaries and Trust

Rabbi Horowitz's column in this week's Jewish Press* addresses a problem that many parents of teens have -- balancing the want (and need) of kids to "do something" on a long winter Saturday night against the need of the parents to make sure that their kids are in a wholesome environment.

He makes one recommendation that parents take the proactive step of organizing an activity for their kids, such as an organized athletic league. Depending on where you live, you may find such programs already exist. There may be basketball leagues for the athletically inclined as well as learning groups for those who want to devote some extra time to learning.

However, not everyone has access to these, or has kids that want to participate in an organized activity. Sometimes, kids just want to "hang out" with friends, go to the local pizza place, or engage in some other "disorganized" activity. I remember when I was a kid, I spent many a Saturday night out with friends of mine. Sometimes it was bowling, sometimes to a movie, or to some other place. And, yes, before anyone asks, it often was mixed (boys and girls). My friends' sisters and their friends were often along for the ride. But we'll get back to that later.

In his article, Rabbi Horowitz makes an important point about establishing a trusting relationship with teenagers while remembering to allow them the freedom that they need. Teens are not five and ten year olds... in many respects, they are young adults, looking to find their own identities. If they are to do this, they have to be allowed a certain amount of freedom to explore. That's not to say that you have to allow everything, of course, but, as a parent, you have to be somewhat flexible. Sure, you might not like to have your son spend his Saturday night at a bowling alley, but you have to may need to compromise to show your teen that you trust him or her.

When I was a kid, my mother trusted me to make certain decisions for myself with regard to which friends to hang out with or where I wanted to go on a Saturday night. Of course, she was always ready to listen to me if I needed advice, but, for the most part, I was allowed to make my own decisions. The reason is that I had her trust - she knew that I was (for the most part) a good kid and hung around with kids who were (again, for the most part) good kids. Yeah, maybe she wasn't so thrilled that I was spending time in mixed company, but I demonstrated to her early on two important traits, which I believe most teens can be taught: (1) that I could develop good judgement and be responsible and (2) that I could learn from mistakes that I make.

My mother had a few rules for when Skipper** and/or I went out. The first was that she had to know where we were going. The second was that if we were going to be late, we had to call. She didn't mind if I stayed out until midnight or one (provided, of course, I made it to the yeshiva's minyan the next day on time) as long as I called her and let her know I was okay (and remember, this was before cell phones).

That's not to say that I was a perfect teen. But I knew enough to know when to "say when." I knew, from the lessons that my mother gave me, what was right and what was wrong (and how far I could venture into the gray area in between). And, most importantly, I had her trust.

I suppose, in many ways, Rabbi Horowitz was writing about my teen years. He stresses the importance of cutting teens slack, and my mother did. He also stresses the importance of maintaining some rules (curfew, checking in if you're going to be late, etc.), which my mother did. And he mentions the importance of, while maintaining a veto power over your teens' choice of destination, using it sparingly -- even if it means going to an activity that you might otherwise disapprove of -- and my mother did that as well.

Walter is now in his mid-teens. George has just entered them and Wilma is not far behind. They are no longer little kids, and Eeees and I can no longer supervise every moment that they spend out of the house with friends. The way I see it, we have a few options: (1) We can just let them go out and, as long we don't get a call from the cops, all is okay. (2) We can forbid them to go anywhere unless the activity and the people are completely pre-approved by us. (3) We can give them some freedom (as is age approriate, of course) and work to instill in them a sense of right and wrong, and give them the mental and emotional tools to allow them to make decisions on their own.

The proper path, I think, is obvious. The first one is the easiest for Eeees and I to follow. However, the risk of things going wrong is just too high that something can go wrong. Kids (yes, even teens) need boundaries and "don't get arrested" is just not enough of a boundary, IMHO. The second path is also a pretty bad one. Yes, the kids won't get in trouble if you supervise and monitor everything they do as teens (assuming you physically can do that). But what happens once they are no longer under your control. However, the day will come (whether it's when they actually become adults, or move out of the house, or when they simply get tired of what they perceive to be excessive parental influence in their lives and rebel) when you simply cannot be on top of them all of the time. If you haven't given them a chance to practice making decisions, then how are they to know how to act once they are out on their own?

Sadly, I think too many parents in our community take the first option out of sheer laziness or the second option out of genuine concern, while not realizing that they are robbing their children of the learning experiences that will serve them well in later life. The last approach is the one taken by my mother and the one that I think is the best to take with kids. Is it possible that the kid will make a bad decision? Yes, it certainly is possible. But you are also giving them the chance to learn from their mistakes, to grow and mature, and, most importantly, to acquire the necessary experience to enable to make responsible life choices in the future.

And isn't that our ultimate job as parents anyway?

The Wolf

P.S. Oh, yeah, I said I'd get back to the mixed company I kept as a teen. Here's the short story: yes, we went out as a group -- my friends, their sisters, some of their female friends. Number of girls I kissed, held hands with or had serious physical activity with at (or as a result of) those meetings: none. Number of girls who became pregnant at any of those meetings: none. Number of "serious relationships" that developed from those meetings: none. Number of times I or one of my friends ended up drunk or high: none. Number of times that we were arrested: none.

Related Post:
Our Kids... Do We Want To Force Them To Keep The Mitzvos?

* This post in no way means to imply that R. Horowitz would have approved of my actions as a teen (described later in the post).

** It should be noted that very often Skipped did *not* go out with my friends and I -- but the rules applied to her as well, whomever she was out with.


SuperRaizy said...

About two years ago, Katie Couric did a television special about teenagers and sex. As she interviewed the teenagers, two things became very clear:
1) The kids who were close to their parents and felt that their parents trusted them were much more reluctant to betray that trust. They dreaded their parent's disapproval even more than they dreaded their friends' disapproval.
2) The kids who felt that their parents did not trust them or were not very interested in them were much more likely to engage in sex and drinking. Some of these kids broke down in tears on camera, saying that they hated what they were doing, but "if my Mom doesn't care then why should I?"
Also- when my niece turned 18, I asked her if she had experimented with drinking or drugs while in high school. She said "I wanted to try it. I really really did. But I kept hearing my mother's voice in my head, warning me about how dangerous it is. And in the end, I just couldn't ignore her voice in my head."
Lesson: Talk to your kids, keep them close, show them you trust them, and (most of the time) they won't betray that trust.

cool yiddishe mama said...

We were just having this conversation over Shabbat. The three frum schools in our community have the following high school situation: the MO/RZ is co-ed in the building and for limudei chol; the "modern charedi" has a girls' high school and a day yeshiva on separate campuses; the "charedi charedi" only has a girls' school and the closest boy's yeshiva (connected to this school) is 10-15 miles from the rest of the community (at an actual yeshiva).

Out of these three groups, the ones least likely to meet up at the local hang-out (a gas station with kosher certified slurpees) to pair off in couples are the kids from the MO/RZ school. For these kids, going to Bnei Akiva or NCSY is not assur (like it is for the kids in the other schools). The kids from the MO/RZ group hang out at someone's house (for movie night) in a large mixed group. The parents are usually also there (but not in the room) and to my understanding, they check in periodically. These parents all trust their children to make good judgments.

To me, hanging in mixed groups give my daughters the tools they will need later on when they are getting ready to select a husband. There will not be too many surprises when it comes to "men". They will not have that social anxiety which over-powers the "good girls" when they are suddenly permitted to talk to boys for shiddukh dating.

I was told several times that my viewpoint comes from my non-frum background. In a lot of ways, yes. The girls in (public) high school who got pregnant were the ones who did not have trusting/loving relationships with their parents. It was something they desperately sought.

This is also part of a slippery slope when fences are not used right. To some girls, if it's assur to merely talk to a boy, why stop there? If we teach our children that talking to or being friends with the opposite gender is not a problem, but there are certain aspects of this relationship we reserve for marriage (out of respect for ourselves and other people).

We fail to reach young people we dress all these restrictions up as halakhah. If they are already disconnected from Judaism, that's the last place you want to go. Teach the girls that being a tznua person also shows self-respect. This is something that by nature will keep a person modest. (I have seen too many women who cover collarbones and elbows with very tight clothing fling their super-long sheitels in the faces of other men.) That is NOT observing tzniut!