When I was growing up, I don’t recall hearing anything about drugs or adolescent suicide, which is now the third-leading cause of death in that age group. Today, every remnant of modesty has disappeared, and moral corruption occurs in the highest offices of the land. Our children are exposed to unprecedented violence, immorality and corruption. In every shul, the aron kodesh is locked. When I was a child, no one ever stole a sefer Torah.
Young people today are exposed to challenges that may exceed their ability to cope. And make no mistake: there is no immunity. These problems are occurring even in the finest and most observant families. “Kids at risk?” All kids are at risk.
We dare not underestimate the gravity of the situation. When weapons were spears and arrows, shields could serve as a defense. When the weapons are grenades and missiles, we need correspondingly greater defenses. The challenges to our youth today are in the category of nuclear weapons. The Talmud at the end of Sotah predicts that before the ultimate redemption, there will be an utter destruction of all semblances of morality and decency. Unfortunately, this prediction has come true. Alcohol, drugs, promiscuity and gambling have become rampant, and our youth has become infected with these contagious conditions.
People are desperately looking for solutions. There is one major problem: They are looking for easy, simple solutions. If there isn’t a magic pill to set things straight, then at least there should be techniques and strategies which parents can use to prevent youngsters from going astray into self-destructive behavior. Send the kid to a therapist, ship him off to Israel, or tell us, as parents, how we should handle him.
Sorry to tell you: there is no magic pill, and there is no consensus on effective management.
“But,” you may say, “We adhere to the highest standards of Yiddishkeit.” I assume that by that you may mean that you only buy chalav Yisrael milk and glatt kosher meat. That is indeed commendable, but that is not “the highest standard of Yiddishkeit.” The highest standard of Yiddishkeit is avodat Hashem and mesirut nefesh, and these are often lacking.
Kedushah in the home, with a child feeling that she or he is holy, can provide resistance to negative environmental influences.
The Meaning of Sacrifice
Avodah means work, and today Yiddishkeit requires very little work. When I was a child, you had to get up before dawn to go to the farm to get chalav Yisrael milk. You had to eviscerate the chicken, soak it and salt it to make it kosher. There were no take-out restaurants. Supporting a family required true mesirut nefesh, because there were few jobs that did not require working on Shabbos.
In the morning tefillah we recite the parashah of the Akeidah (the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac). If we do so sincerely, we are reminded that Yiddishkeit requires mesirut nefesh. And what is mesirut nefesh? It does not mean martyrdom, but rather expending heroic energy and making sacrifices for the ideas and principles in which one believes.
Peace in the Home
To provide security for a child, the most important element is true shalom bayit. But this requires that parents make sacrifices, yielding one’s wants and even one’s needs in consideration of one’s spouse. As long as a husband or wife is self-centered, insisting on things being the way he or she wants them to be and disregarding the wants of the other spouse, there is no shalom bayit. Where there is true love and mutual respect between the husband and wife, the Shechinah (Divine spirit) is present, and that brings in an element of kedushah (holiness) into the home that can help counteract the toxicity of the surrounding environment. Kedushah in the home, with a child feeling that she or he is holy, can provide resistance to negative environmental influences.
Children did not ask to be brought into this hectic, stress-ridden world. It was the parents’ decision to do so, and they are obligated to give the child the best opportunity to be happy and productive. Once you bring a child into the world, you forfeit the right to insist on your own wants. Parents have an awesome responsibility. There can be no consideration about what the father wants or what the mother wants. The home must operate on what is ultimately best for the child’s welfare.
When a child feels that the bond between parents is strong, and that they truly love and respect one another, the child has a feeling of security. If there is a lack of true love and mutual respect, the child becomes anxious. Homes in which there is spousal abuse, whether verbal, emotional or physical, are toxic to children.
Parents may think that they can conceal their differences from their children. This is a mistake. Children are extremely sensitive and have antennae that pick up subliminal communications. It is crucial, for the children’s sake, that the parents resolve their differences.
A shortstop and a first baseman may have their differences, but when the ball comes to the shortstop, he tries to make an accurate throw to the first baseman because they both have a common goal—to put the runner out. Parents should have the child’s welfare as the common goal.
In the same vein, when a parent loses his or her temper, even if fully justified, the child’s security is endangered. A parent may say, “What can I do? I have a short fuse.” That is an unacceptable excuse. Furthermore, the child will learn to lose his or her temper. One must have mesirut nefesh and expend heroic energy to control one’s anger.
Setting an Example
Other sacrifices are necessary too. If we want our children to connect to Yiddishkeit, we must make it consumer friendly. Some children don’t want to go to shul, and I can hardly blame them. Davening is supposed to be a sincere communication between oneself and Hashem, but many minyanim hardly convey this. The prayers are recited at breakneck speed, which does not permit even a minimum of meditation. All that is required to give tefillah a chance of relating to Hashem with true devotion is five to ten minutes more in shul. Is it too much of a sacrifice to spend ten minutes more in tefillah?
Furthermore, there is unfortunately the abominable practice of conversing during services, a sin so great that the Shulchan Aruch says there is no forgiveness for it. How can we expect our children to have respect for Hashem and Torah when they observe such brazen disrespect?
Yes, we are shomer Shabbos. We do not work or cook on Shabbos. But there is more to Shabbos than that. Listen to the words of the Isaiah: “If you restrain, because of the Sabbath, your regular habits, refrain from accomplishing your own needs on My holy day; if you proclaim the Sabbath ‘a delight’, the holy one of Hashem, ‘honored one,’ and you honor it by not doing your own ways, from seeking your needs or discussing the forbidden [business matters] then you shall be granted pleasure from Hashem, and I shall mount you astride the heights of the world and provide you the heritage of your forefather, Jacob” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
If our children see us reading the weekend issue of the newspaper on Shabbos, or discussing finances or what is even worse, speaking lashon hara, then they cannot grasp the holiness of Shabbos. There are enough Torah works, both in Hebrew and in English, that we can occupy ourselves with Torah on Shabbos.
Drugs: A Substitute for Happiness
Children may seek dangerous behaviors for the thrill effect. But a happy child is less likely to do so. Drugs are a substitute for happiness. True, there is no way we can make a child happy, but what we can do is provide an environment that is most conducive for the child to develop his or her happiness.
When First Lady Nancy Reagan launched the campaign “Just say ‘No’ to drugs,” some researchers asked youngsters what they thought of it. One fourteen-year-old girl said, “Why should one say ‘no’ to drugs? What else is there?” We are not going to prevent youngsters from using drugs or engaging in other dangerous behaviors unless we can convince them that there is something that makes life meaningful, and we can do so only by modeling for them that our goal in life is something more than maximum kosher comfort and pleasure. It takes some mesirut nefesh to accomplish this.
I don’t know the reasons why some children deviate and go off the derech or become involved in self-destructive behaviors, and I don’t know what strategies one can use to bring them back. But I am certain that providing a wholesome home environment for a child is paramount in a child’s quest for happiness. The security of the home can help counteract the insecurity of the world.
The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, now called “Abe’s place,” Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books.