At what point should parents give up their efforts to “control” how their children observe religion? For example, if a child decides they do not want to attend weekly Shabbat services or wants to stop wearing a kippah, what should the parents' response be?
This question is as much about parenting as it is about religion, and I would not want to pretend to be a parenting expert, although I confess to having found very few of those even among the acknowledged such experts. I think I can lay out some central issues for you, the kinds of questions you might want to ask yourself as you move forward. I hope they will help you navigate this difficult time in your family life, and offer my thoughts with my best wishes that you as parents and as a family come to a peaceful place soon.
The first question, I think, is what is leading to your child's decisions to abandon the religion he or she sees in your home-- is this a five year old, a fifteen year old, a 20 year old? What is the general environment in which this child lives-- are his/her decisions consonant with the ones s/he sees peers making (e.g., is the child in a public school, where almost all the other children are non-religious, or even in a Jewish Day School, but one where the general level of religiosity is much lower than what s/he sees in the house)? Is this, perhaps, an adolescence issue, a way of declaring independence from you and/or rebelling against you? Is there some other reason that religion feels onerous to this child, in ways you might discuss and work around (so, e.g., if you hope for the child to study Torah 8 hours a day, and that is leading to the rebellion, there might be room to cut back).
So the first step is to come to a good understanding of what is going on for the child, because that will condition your response. Once you are clear on that, the age of the child again becomes relevant-- a 10 year old is still your child in all senses, a 20 year old should (we hope) have one foot out the door of your familial home, and then there are all the gradations in between.
I think, largely, you need to communicate to your child how deeply you feel about religion, how much the choices s/he is making hurt you, and how much they place you in a quandary-- you don't want to withold your love, but you also don't want the environment of your home disrupted by irreligious behavior (when one child doesn't attend Shabbat services, it affects the other children as well, in a variety of ways-- it might make the others more linked to religion, but it definitely has some effect).
In addition, it seems to me, that your child is likely expecting certain kinds of support from you, but you, I think, can communicate to your child that it is difficult for you to support a lifestyle that you think is mistaken/wrong/inappropriate, or whatever other term you feel fits best.
Within that framework-- the child is on the way to making him/herself into the adult s/he wants to be, while you have hopes for how that will turn out, a home to build, and a sense of what you are and aren't willing to support-- you can see where you feel the need to draw lines (always tricky, since children are looking for independence) and where you'll turn a blind eye. My own children, I can say without revealing anything too personal, don't particularly rebel but also do not (yet, I hope) observe the religion in the way I would find optimal. I daily walk the line between ignoring, cajoling, pushing, and insisting about religious observance. With a child who has declared a desire to leave religion, that walk on that line is even trickier, and leads me again to offer you my best wishes for taking it a step at a time, with care, and hope for you that you succeed as much as possible or, better, avoid as many minefields as you can.
This is a challenging question because the source material on this subject is from a time in which a child's recognized maturity level in society was at a much different age than it is today. Men and women were getting married and considered adults at munch younger ages than today.
Jewish sources on this subject point to the age of bar mitzvah (13 for a boy) as the time when he is free to make religious decisions, but a girl had to wait until she married out of her parents' home. In our society today it is common for children to be considered "grown up" and capable of making some personal decisions on their own when they leave the home for college. However, many young people are staying at home during the college years or moving back into their parents' home after college thereby making the age at which these decisions should be allowed (or tolerated) a bit confusing.
From an ethics perspective, it seems logical that as our children age and mature we discuss religious observance with them on the level most appropriate to their comprehension. Forcing religious observance on children is likely to backfire, but demonstrating the positive aspects of such religious activities as attending Shabbat services at synagogue or temple can be rewarding. In terms of wearing a kippah, there may be times when it is mandated (Hebrew School, Day School, in the synagogue, etc.) however if a child doesn't wish to wear it on a daily basis then a conversation is in order. Certain rituals of a personal nature (wearing tzitzit or a kippah) may best be left up to a mature child, but synagogue attendence might not be optional.
Negotiating with children is part of parenting and when it comes to certain religious decisions like attending Shabbat services there is likley room for compromise. For example, some parents might find it agreeable to allow children to bring a favorite (Shabbat and syangogue appropriate) toy or book along with them. No parent should force religious observance on the child to the point where the child becomes rebelious and resentful. Judaism should be seen as a fun way of life with rewarding activities. If your child decides they don't want to attend weekly Shabbat services, see if there might be a youth group program they could join to meet other children their age who attend each week. No matter what decision you ultimately allow your child to make (or make in cooperation with them), be certain that the lines of communication remain open. That is the most important thing.
In my experience working with many 20-40 something adult Jews, from all the movements in Judaism, most of what they identify as what makes them Jewish today is the memories created when they were children.Whether it was attending synagogue with a grandparent, helping prepare food for a holiday meal, or reading a favorite story with an older sibling, these memories do more to shape the Jewish identity of an adult than much of the information they are fed along the way.My sense is that the more positive memories a child has, that relate to forming Jewish identity and practice, the more stable that identity will be through their teen and young adult years, enabling them to pass on Jewish identity through the generations.
It is also my experience, that the age of bar mitzvah, although the time when we are told, through rabbinic teaching, our children’s souls belong to them and are no longer in our keeping, is not the age of letting go of parental control of memory shaping.When bat mitzvah becomes the age of “you are done with forced learning and free to make your own religious choices” most children haven’t reached the age of abstract reasoning and can’t figure out how to successfully continue their engagement with religious or spiritual practice.It may have been that prior to the industrial revolution and the invention of adolescence, children were able to make the transition to self determination out of necessity.Now, we have a long period of growth and experimentation before having to be fully accountable for our own actions and choices.
My suggestion is that parents choose Jewish rituals and practices that are supported by the context in which their children live and the memories they want to successfully transfer to their children.And, that the practice of parental choice be held until children can reason, in both concrete and abstract ways, as to why they should no longer observe these practices, adapt them, or pick up new ones.At that point, a parent may know that their child has a deep sense of the ritual or practice and owns its place in his or her life.What is given up now, during adolescence, can be easily reincorporated or adapted later in life.
A parent should never have to force religious practice on a child.What feels like pushing away a forced behavior may just be a child wondering what this ritual or practice has to do with his or her life.If there is no context for the practice, it will feel forced and alien.These practices are likely to be pushed away whenever the child has choice, never to be reintroduced as they had no real meaning when forced in the first place.A parent will have a much easier time engaging a child in religious practice, if it makes sense to the child based on parental behavior and family context.
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