In the American system of education, a child enters first grade at about the age of 6. He enters high school at about age 14 and, at age 18, he is for all intents and purposes an adult, ready to vote. Interestingly, Chazal delineated these stages as well. Age 6 was the time they recommended that someone begin formal schooling (“Rav said: Before the age of six do not accept them as students; from that age, you can accept them and stuff them with Torah like an ox.” [Bava Batra 21a] Apparently, he understood that a young mind is like a sponge.) But, after that, Chazal identified the early teens not as an intellectual milestone alone but as a religious one, as well. The age of 12 or 13 is the age of mitzvot, the time one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. It is a time for the assumption of religious responsibilities and not simply added intellectual ones. In other words, the 12 and 13-year-old is an adult in Jewish law, the same milestone that American culture posits for the 18-year-old! This has numerous implications, not least of which is that perhaps we should be asking more of our kids in the way of religious observance than we sometimes do. Just as we demand that they become more responsible in their schoolwork or their responsibilities around the house, even when this may create conflict, so too, we must do the same around religious observance.
Easier said than done. For we also know that adolescence is a very difficult time to assume responsibilities, all the more so in a culture which seems to have prolonged adolescence into the late teens or early twenties. Torn between family and peers, hormonal and neurological changes, etc., anyone who has a teen (or can recall being one) knows how conflicted a time it can be. And so, these changes make themselves felt in the religious domain as well. They are certainly related to cognitive changes. As one neurologist put it “many adolescents are burdened by the emergence of an agnostic brain.” Here again, then, treating that agnosticism too harshly or too liberally can send a teen in a direction from which it will be difficult to return. And we haven’t even begun to address the emotional component of religious life! What’s a parent or educator to do?
Many kids go through this period of their lives religiously unscathed. Indeed, they can use this period as a time of healthy growth and further development. There is no easy recipe for creating this scenario but it certainly has a lot to do with how strongly committed their religious lives were while they were growing up (so if you have a pre-teen, keep laying the strong foundations.) There are clearly a lot of other factors going on here as well – siblings, peers, schools… the list goes on, but my own formal research exploring the lives of over 200 teens indicates that family background and environment is probably the most decisive factor.
What about the kids who have a harder time? What about the kids who seem to rebel even a little or a lot, or the kids who have doubts, or the kids who are passive about their religious lives? Indeed, if my claim about religiosity being a developmental process is true, then it means that virtually everyone goes through some “phase” during adolescence — even the kids who on the outside are “doing great,” even the kids who live in communities that are more to the right than our own and who seem to be living their lives according to a single mold. What about them?
Given how complex this issue is, it would be foolish to describe one size that fits all souls but I do want to emphasize just one major point that I have learned over the years, namely, it’s critically important to keep them in the game. Let me explain that remark by referring to sophomores in high school. Sophomores often suffer from “middle child syndrome.” They are the middle child of high school. They have lost the innocence and enthusiasm that come with being a freshman in high school and they are not yet in the throes of the “everything now counts” that plagues juniors and seniors who have an eye on SAT’s or high school graduation. Sophomores are in between. They can start off pretty young but by the second half of the year they are moving into a stage that is all at once more adult-like, more questioning and/or at the same time more rebellious about some things and more passive about others. They’ll challenge more and they’ll think about experimenting more. They are moving out of their cocoon but it’s not always easy to convince them to take things seriously. To be sure, these are all generalizations but they help highlight the intense conflicts or “adolescence” of the year. And what is true intellectually and emotionally is true religiously as well. I have long believed that sophomore year represents a natural dip in religious observance. Sure enough, there was a survey of over 2000 yeshiva high school kids a number of years ago that proved exactly that. The good news is that there was an upturn again heading toward senior year. Apparently, whatever goes on for kids as sophomores often begins to iron itself out towards graduation. But not for all kids; there are clearly lots of other factors involved. But precisely because there can be so much change, so much upheaval, so much inconsistency, so much challenging and passivity at the same time, it is important that they not be allowed to lose sight of the anchors that keep them rooted. Hence my belief that it is critically important to “keep them in the game” during all of their adolescent years despite the fact that they may balk.
Precisely at the time when kids are questioning or challenging, internally or in their behavior, the adults in their lives need to keep their children immersed in a life of commitment. It means getting them to shul even when they don’t want to, for example, or sitting at the Shabbat table even though they are too tired. Above all, it means reminding them about the beauty and satisfaction of Jewish life and customs; it means keeping them in the game. For the more they keep in it, the more likely they will be to come back to it when the stormy seas of adolescence begin to calm. In the best-case scenario, they will use their Judaism as one of the compasses to keep their path steady throughout high school and beyond.
A child may become an adult according to Jewish law at the age of bar/bat mitzvah, but that is no guarantee that s/he will become a Jewishly responsible or committed adult, any more than turning 18 is a guarantee that one will turn into a responsible citizen or driver (in some places). There is a learning curve, and there may be some mistakes and wrong turns along the way. All the more reason that they need the adults in their lives to help direct them, sometimes gently, sometimes by taking over the wheel, but always with the knowledge that we want them to arrive at their destination healthy and whole, in body and in soul.
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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.