Excerpt: The Blessing of a B Minus
Chapter One: The Hidden Blessings of Raising Teenagers
After the publication of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, people often asked me why I’d written the book. My answer was that I wrote the book to remind myself to do what it said. And mostly, it worked. Using the Jewish teachings I’d written about, I was able to resist the extremes of overprotection, overscheduling, overindulgence, and the sky-high expectations that were the norm in the Los Angeles neighborhood in which I was raising my two young daughters. I was clear and strategic about teaching my children to honor mother and father; I also worked to honor them by respecting both their talents and limitations. I reminded myself daily of the Talmudic dictum that says every parent is obligated to teach their child how to swim—a philosophy I applied by letting my daughters climb really tall trees, use sharp knives, cook with a hot pan, and, of course, because I live in Southern California, learn to swim and jump and dive in the deep end while they were still very young.
When my first book was published, my girls were nine and thirteen years old, and I gazed confidently ahead to their adolescence. When it comes to teenagers, I am a professional. Literally. I am a social-clinical psychologist, which means I am trained to look at emotional problems in their cultural context, with a specialty in parenting and normal child development. I’ve been working with families for thirty years. I know the theories of individuation, the effect of puberty on mood, the way circadian rhythms disrupt teens’ sleep cycles, and the teenaged thirst for dopamine (the neurochemical of risk and excitement). I am well aware of the negative impact of our speedy, wired, competitive, and coarse culture on the development of good character in young people. I am alert to modern teens’ vulnerability to anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, depression, learning and attention problems, and substance abuse.
I imagined that with my professional and religious bag of tricks in hand, I’d guide my daughters safely past all the usual hazards of adolescence. As they left their tween years, my daughters would become more responsible, more mature, and better family citizens. Under my thoughtful guidance, we’d develop common interests; we’d enjoy deeper conversations. The wheels of daily family life would glide more smoothly now that we had these tall, intelligent, articulate, inventive helpmates on the team.
This is not what happened.
Instead, as my girls grew older, the pleasant choreography of daily life evaporated. In its place arrived unrelenting power struggles over every conceivable topic: waking up (they couldn’t); going to bed (they wouldn’t); chores (“Mom! I can’t! I have band practice after school and a big test tomorrow”). The lovely neatness of their rooms was gone, a casualty of teen blindness to clothes and drinking glasses on the floor. Their pretty outfits were rejected for what looked like ragged cast-offs. Conversations consisted of monosyllabic sentences through closed doors or searing insults hurled at my husband and me. At times there were so many troubles and resentments brewing in our house that I questioned my fitness as a mother; I wondered if it was too late. If I had already ruined my children. I reminded myself to pick battles. But which ones? I wondered. There were so many battles to choose from! I told myself to let them make their own mistakes, the teen version of allowing them to skin their knees. But now this advice seemed naive. What if they get into really big trouble, the kind that wreaks permanent havoc on their grades, their health, their futures? In my practice I had helped hundreds of families, but I felt helpless with mine.
In addition to my anger and confusion, I also felt grief. To raise young children is to drink daily at the font of tenderness and physical affection: “Mommy and Daddy, please lie down with me….read me one more book…stay with me till I fall asleep!” Now, signs appeared on my daughters’ doors: “Keep out. This means you.” Me. The one who had changed their vomit-covered sheets and sang just the right lullaby and gently rocked and rocked and rocked them. Keep out. This means you.
Then I brightened. I remembered that I had Judaism! When my children were younger, Judaism had helped me recast everyday parenting problems into questions of everyday holiness. It reminded me that our children are a loan from God and we are simply stewards. It guided me toward the basic but powerful principals of moderation, celebration and sanctification. Yes, I’d redouble my efforts to bring Jewish rituals into our home. I would go back to baking challah from scratch. I’d bake it that very Friday night. I imagined the smell wafting up to the girls’ rooms and, just as the sacrifices at the ancient holy temple “were pleasing to the Lord,” they would also be delighted, following the scent downstairs. They’d stop at the landing and smile at the beautifully set Shabbat table, eager to engage in a ritual that had so reliably provided us with family togetherness and spiritual elevation for so many years. We would discuss the Torah portion about shalom bayit (peace in the home), and, chagrined but hopeful, the girls would ask how they might make amends for their crappy attitudes, lack of gratitude, and laziness.
This did not happen, either.
That Friday night, after the girls explained that they were too busy to have Shabbat dinner with us, I found myself alone with my husband, my loaf of challah, the grape juice and the wine, and ample time for reflection. I decided that going back to Judaism was still a smart idea, but that maybe it was best to de-emphasize the family rituals and instead focus on shoring up my own spiritual stance.
Once again, I discovered practical wisdom in ancient rabbinic teachings. I re-read one of the foundational stories of Judaism, the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. I had often heard this trip described as the adolescence of the Jewish people, the time between their “childhood” in slavery and their maturity as governors of the Promised Land, but now I saw the analogy with the eyes of someone who is actually on the trip. Moses had to put up with forty years of directing a flock of whiners and complainers. Whenever he turned his back, even for a minute, they made the kind of trouble that is familiar to parents of teenagers: overstuffing themselves on manna, worshipping a glittering false idol, throwing a bacchanal. When he tried to reason with the people, they were sarcastic: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to this awful, awful place?,” they asked. They threatened to revolt. They moaned and cried that they wished they could be slaves again. The Biblical commentaries explain that although there was a relatively quick, direct route through the desert, God intentionally led Moses on a roundabout route for decades. The adolescence of the Jewish people had to be long and difficult enough for it to really take, for them to develop hard-won wisdom and, at last, grow up. No shortcuts allowed.
That lesson for parents—no shortcuts allowed—is something I’d lost sight of. My expertise as a psychologist couldn’t protect my daughters and me from the vicissitudes of adolescence, and no wonder: raising teenagers has always been hard. It has to be hard. Judaism teaches us that the agonizing transition of adolescence is all part of what is called tzar giddul banim, the necessary pain of raising children. I knew from my professional life that most of this pain is caused by the important work teenagers do when they begin to separate from their parents. As they move away and establish their own identity, teenagers long for security and comfort at the same time. They kick at authority, unconsciously trying to make parents less attractive so it will be easier to leave them. They cling to their friends, who are as awkward and unsteady as they are. It is their job to oppose their parents, to make mistakes in order to acquire a deeply felt sense of right and wrong, to reject Mom and Dad in order to fully realize their own sense of self. This “necessary pain” must be experienced. If parents do not treat this journey with respect and dignity, if we insist (as I did) on trying to find a shortcut, if we do not allow teenagers the time they need to kvetch and make stupid mistakes and reject us, they won’t get where they need to go. Again, I began writing a book because I had to—because I needed to remind myself to love my teenagers’ rough, uneven path across the desert.
I found myself drawn back to the advice given in traditional Judaism to say blessings, or prayers of gratitude, at least one hundred times a day. There are prescribed prayers to say upon rising in the morning, after using the bathroom, before eating the first ripe fruit of a season, before putting on new clothes. There is even a prayer to say when bad things happen: “Thank you, God, for this test of my spiritual elevation.” It’s a wise spiritual practice to say a blessing over the necessary pain of adolescent separation, too. Not because you should adopt a falsely bright, “Everything’s peachy at our house!” attitude, but because the pain is a sign that adolescence is proceeding normally. It is crucial for parents to acquire an understanding of this feature of adolescent development, because without it they take their teen’s normal rebellion personally. They get enmeshed in their teen’s problems. They take a snapshot of their teen in his current phase and mistake it for the epic movie of his entire life. They become so entangled with their child that they are unable to step back, think calmly, and provide clear-headed leadership. Instead of guiding their teen toward Jewish values like self-reliance, self-control, moderation, and sanctified celebration, parents make their daily choices based on media-generated fears or on their perception of what looks good on college applications.
My suggestion that bewildered parents view adolescence as a blessing is more than a high-flying philosophy. At an age when your kids don’t tolerate religion, you can respectfully take the baton for a while. This means you cultivate an attitude of gratitude, shifting your own perspective rather than trying to control your child. Each of the chapters to come describes a common complaint about teenagers and reconceives it as a sign of good health, psychological development, or spiritual progression:
—Bizarre teen behavior, so annoyingly not in line with your dreams and plans, is a sign that your teen’s unique personality is unfolding. When you, the parent, practice charitable acceptance of your teen’s self-expression, you increase the chances that she will blossom mentally, morally and spiritually.
—Teenaged rudeness is a paradox. It lets you know that your teen is trying desperately to separate from you and that you are the “safe” person who can receive their frustration with not being all grown up yet. This is your chance to set reasonable limits for your teen and to demonstrate that mature adults are not easily provoked by bad manners.
—One of the ways teens learn about the importance of hard work is by suffering the consequences of their procrastination and laziness. A wise parent will resist interfering with those natural consequences, even if it means allowing a child to take a lower-than-wished-for grade.
—Materialism and self-centeredness are normal during this period of rapid and shifting identity formation. Just as a pregnant woman focuses inward, thinking about how her body is changing and fantasizing about what her baby will look like, adolescents are preoccupied as they give birth to themselves. Parents can practice tolerance of this phase while spotting opportunities to teach teens how to think about the future and beyond their egocentric concerns.
—When teens break the rules, or even the law, it is often because they aren’t satisfied with a merely rote knowledge of our ethical system. What’s right? What’s wrong? Do adults mean what they say when they make rules? Are there exceptions? By requiring teens to make amends for their wrongs and by helping them channel some of their wild spirit, parents allow their teens to acquire an in-depth knowledge of our moral code.
—Teens get into hot water all the time. They court drama and are poor predictors of disaster. This provides an excellent opportunity for learning self-reliance: how to solve problems and how to mine difficult circumstances for their benefits.
—Staying up late is sometimes a teen’s shot at independence, and goofing around is a way to ease the stresses of growing up. Parents should respect a teen’s need to wind down and protect their need for rest and fun.
—Finally, limited experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex teaches teens how to regulate these powerful experiences while they are still under your guidance.
I know it’s not easy to convert your teens’ struggles into blessings. It requires a stalwart character. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means a narrow place. The Jews escaped from Egypt and were b’midbar, in the desert, the wilderness, traveling with no guarantee of what would be on the other side. The new and better land was only a promise. They had to have faith in their leader, Moses, and in an unknowable future. Adolescence, too, is a time of change with no blueprint or guarantees. It’s tempting to think that we should protect teens during the desert crossing of adolescence. But that’s not our job. Our job is to guide them through it.
This is another blessing of raising adolescents: it’s the best opportunity you will ever have to develop your leadership qualities. When your children were young, it was appropriate for you to guide them actively. You allowed them to skin their knees and learn from their mistakes, but you also performed many hands-on functions like checking their backpacks for stray homework assignments, making sure their hair was brushed, and seeing that they wore hats and gloves in cold weather. Now, as the parent of teenager, your job is counterintuitive. Just as a corporate executive has to resist micromanagement to be effective, it’s time for you to practice detachment, to do less instead of more.
Detachment, practiced properly, is neither cold nor unloving. It doesn’t mean that you walk away from your parenting duties. Quite the opposite. Detachment is a balancing act that requires both rachmanut (compassion) and tsimtsum. Tsimtsum means “contraction of divine energy.” This is a wonderful spiritual model for relinquishing control over children based on God’s relationship with us, his children. According to the Jewish mystics, originally everything was God; God’s light and energy filled up the entire universe. But in order to make room for the world to expand, to fill it with plants and animals and people, God had to inhale, to pull back and contract his power. Parents of teens can do the same. As leaders of our children, it’s essential for us to step back from the urgency, the mistakes, the heartbreaks, the rejection. We practice rachmanut and tsimtsum by watching the dramas of the day as committed but slightly amused observers. The school-wide epidemic of mononucleosis; the moving violation your son incurs when he’s caught doing “doughnuts” in any icy parking lot; your daughter’s grief and outrage when she is dumped by her best friend—respond with concern anddetachment. Know the difference between a crisis and an emergency. Don’t worry too much about being popular; don’t act too quickly; develop hobbies or interests outside of the home to absorb some of the leftover tension; and in general, try to find a large part of what transpires humorous. By taking a deep breath and withdrawing, you make space for your child to grow.
A Jewish approach to blessings takes us away from a myopic view of the day-to-day. (“My daughter got a B minus on a math test! The end is near.”) They carry us both down and up. We go down to a deeper level of our own faith, because we are sorely tested. Just as our children become their most difficult, and at the time when everyone else around us has swallowed the Kool-Aid of fear and anxiety, we are asked to take the long, long view of adolescent development. And we go up to a greater experience and wisdom. During the ten years between the publication of Skinned Knee and the book you are now reading, I’ve seen the children of perfectly sane, sensible, decent parents (the parents include myself, my clients, my friends, my family, the parents at my lectures) wrestle with troubles, and then I’ve seen almost every one grow into an admirable and interesting young adult. Now that my daughters are grown, I remember how distressed, confused, and frightened I was by their adolescence—but I also look back with buckets of delight at the traveling circus of their teen years, at their amazing friendships and adventures, at their concerted efforts to figure out how to grow up. As parents of teenagers, we are asked to govern from a new position of calm authority, not just for ourselves and our children but for community, for the work of tikkun olam, healing the cosmic tear in the universe.