The Answer to the Defiant Child’s Question: An Approach to the Challenges of Adolescence

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18 Mar 2021

“Blessed be G-d, Blessed be He; Blessed be the One who Gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed be He. Corresponding to four sons did the Torah speak; one [who is] wise, one [who is] evil, one who is innocent and one who doesn’t know to ask.”  (Passover Haggadah)

The section of the Four Sons is one of the most famous, recognizable and popular parts of Passover’s Haggadah liturgy.

Yet, despite the popularity of the section and the plethora of commentaries explaining it, the wisdom which underlies the answer to the evil/defiant son’s question is difficult to comprehend.

The defiant son asks,

           מה העבודה הזאת לכם

What is this work (the Paschal Service) to you

The author of the Haggadah notes that the phrase “to you” is understood as a sign of the defiant son’s nefarious behavior as he desires to exclude himself from the Jewish community.

The Haggadah cites a verse from Exodus 13:8 as an answer to the defiant son.

‘בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם’.
לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

‘Because of this’, (the Paschal Service),
G-d did this for me, when I left Egypt
‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’
If he (the defiant son) had been there, he would not have been saved

The father’s response communicates that a direct consequence of isolating from the Jewish community would result in the loss of the defiant son to Jewish destiny. 

Is this really the best that the Torah can do

In this section, the Haggadah honestly acknowledges that children can stray from their parents’ path. If we believe that the Torah is a repository of all wisdom, (Ethics of our Fathers 5:22) then the Haggadah’s answer should contain a valuable insight into the issues of parenting oppositional adolescents. The Haggadah’s response however, doesn’t seem to provide any profound or meaningful guidance to mothers and fathers who are struggling in their roles as parents.

Moreover, before the Haggadah presents this answer, the Haggadah gives an odd and almost Medieval instruction to the defiant son’s father: 

וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו

And accordingly, you will blunt (lit. strike) his teeth 

Even if the words and accordingly you will strike his teeth, are to be understood metaphorically as a method of deflecting the son’s anger, it is difficult to discern how the response of “for me and not for him” accomplishes this goal.

Perhaps the Haggadah is shedding light on an important aspect of parenting adolescents.

Invariably, when children are younger, parents can more easily instruct their children to perform or cease to perform a particular action, as children are dependent on parents and look to them as guides.

When children become teenagers and achieve their halachic majority by becoming bar and bat-mitzvah, they begin to become more independent.. Which is a natural and necessary part of the growing process. 

As Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg writes, “It is an adolescent’s job to gain the confidence to be able to stand on his ownit is critical to their well-being and to the health of our relationships that we honor their growing independence.”

Consequently, adolescents may not comply with a parent’s directive simply because they are trying to carve out their own space and identity. Oftentimes, a parent internalizes any negative response from a teenager as an affront and will repeat an instruction more forcefully, in an effort to gain compliance. If the instruction is not followed, a power struggle can develop.

Psychotherapist Brendan Bell notes that power struggles with teenagers can be the ultimate “no-win” situation for parents. He notes that, while there are definitely situations where power struggles are necessary (usually related to safety issues), the overuse and misuse of power struggles can provide the breeding ground for oppositional behavior in children and teens.”

Best-selling author and psychotherapist Amy Morin, suggests using consequences when attempting to modify adolescent behavior. When a parent simply and calmly presents consequences as a response for a given behavior, a child begins to understand the importance of his/her decision making process, and that our choices have very real ramifications. Morin writes, “Consequences help children see that (if) they made a bad choice, they are (still) capable of doing better in the future. And ultimately, consequences are more effective (than punishment) in improving behavior problems in children.”

Maybe, the wisdom of the father’s response to the defiant son, is that parents should avoid engaging in power struggles with children, and instead focus on the consequences of a child’s actions. 

Clearly the defiant son is angry and frustrated with his perceptions of Judaism. When the defiant son says “what is this work (avodah) to you,” he chooses the word avodah to express that Judaism is “work”; a drudgery to avoid.

The wisdom of the response to the defiant son is that the father doesn’t allow the defiant son’s statement to escalate into a contest for control. The father doesn’t say to his son, “You are wrong; Torah is not a burden,” or “You are seriously misguided; it is an honor to prepare for Passover.” Rather, the father literally blunts the attack of his child by simply presenting a natural ramification of his son’s attitude. The father explains that the outcome of the son’s desire to separate from the Jewish people could result in the child being lost to Jewish destiny. 

The father is implicitly saying to his son, “that you are part of a long and beautiful chain of history and tradition which is meaningful and profound. Although you are presently frustrated with Torah laws, there will come a time when that may change.”

Furthermore, The Haggadah in formulating the father’s response writes:

וֶאֱמוֹר לו

And (the father) shall say to him (the defiant son)

According to Rashi, the word אֱמוֹר/emor is a verb which connotes a kinder and gentler form of speech. The Haggadah’s choice of this verb, instructs parents not to raise their voices when confronted by oppositional behavior, but rather to speak softly. 

The key to the success of the ‘response of consequence’ is that it is delivered without anger on the part of the parent. A calm approach is the source of its effectiveness and protects it from the power struggle. Additionally, an understanding manner communicates love and patience, thereby giving an adolescent the ability to build their own religious identity.

The Satmar Rebbe Rav Yoel Teitelbaum noted that the questions of the defiant son and the wise son are placed in direct proximity to one another and there is a stylistic similarity between the two questions. According to the Rebbe, the linkage between the two questions communicates a vital idea that parents with oppositional adolescents should know and remember: with our efforts and with help from G-d, today’s defiant  son, can be tomorrow’s wise son.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.