The question that asks “Is it right to force a teenager to observe Shabbat or the Dietary Laws?” may best be answered by slightly rephrasing as 'is it wiseto force a teenager,' because in truth, “force” doesn’t belong in this answer altogether. And if force allows itself in, the effect takes us to undesirable ends. The parents' training will be against the child’s will, and against its nature and character. Alongside the information or the essence that the would-be instructor will transmit with it to the student will be a real grudge and resentment. So the force will cause one to have, at best, a body of knowledge that has an inner antagonism and inner bitterness, and will thereby lead the child to seek to overthrow its learning at the first opportunity.
Fortunately, the Bible provides many pleasant alternatives to the use of force in educating and rearing the Jewish child. The Book of Proverbs (22:6) taught us “Educate the child ‘al pi darko;’ according to its way; gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimenu, such that when one becomes older, one will not stray from it.” Whatever the verse means to us, it certainly does not mean anything like “force” the child. “According to its way” can mean fast or slow, the hard part before the easy part, watching as the pupil takes it according to your tempo of understanding or not. Proverbs teaches us that all of these are available to us, but allows nothing by force or compulsion.
There may seem to be a contradiction here. After all, central to the Ten Commandments is the precept to “Honor thy father and thy mother,” which apparently imposes some sort of coercion upon the child by the parents, coercion to transmit the contents of the Torah, willy nilly. But no, there is no contradiction. The ideals of the Commandments are held up as standards for the child to reach up to. But the wise parent knows that the correct way to ensure that the child will strive for these standards is by avoiding the artificial and the resented, by leading by example, and by guiding the child "al pi darko."
Many parents would love to force their teenage children to do lots of things: do their homework, clean their rooms, and help take care of their younger siblings. But, as parents of teens know, trying to force a teen to do anything they do not want to do is fruitless. So, trying to force a teen to observe mitzvoth will only cause stress and friction in the house. Moreover, once a teen has reached the age of bar mitzvah, 12 for a girl or 13 for a boy, Jewish law states that it is then their responsibility, not the parents, to observe, or not observe mitzvot.
A parent can encourage a teen age child to be observant and provide him or her with positive Jewish experiences. But Judaism is not a religion of coercion. No one should force anyone else to observe any of the mitzvoth.
If you would like your teenager to be more observant, why not have a conversation with them about what they find to be meaningful in Judaism. Ask them what “works” for them in Jewish practice. What rituals do they like? What makes them feel good? Happy? Comforted? Safe? Loved? Grateful? Connected to others? Connected to God? Be non judgmental and very open to what they tell you. You may be surprised. If you can help them connect a real feeling to a practice, then they will be motivated to continue with a practice once they realize that it makes them feel good.
You may want to do this exercise for yourself before you have this conversation with your teen. Think about your own practices and what you get out of them. What feelings and associations do they bring up for you? (Positive and negative) What motivates you to continue to observe as you do?
Much of our belief in child/parent relations is predicated on the commandment translated as Honor your father and mother. KVD is the shoresh/root of the word translated as “honor”. But an alternative translation is “to give weight”. So we might translate that commandment as Give weight [to the teachings and influence] of your mother and father.Seen in that light we can look at your question not from the perspective of the parents, but of the response of the teenager. Parents are going to teach/indoctrinate/insist upon passing down their belief system to their children. After all, it is what they want to see as their legacy as well as their responsibility to maintain their religious practices and traditions. L’dor v’dor…from one generation to the other. But coercion does not instill belief, only obedience that might disappear once the young person is on his/her own. Parents have the responsibility to introduce practices, encourage beliefs and model traditions. A parent who insists and forces a teenager (who, by the way, has the responsibility to rebel if only to experience the freedom of choice) will lose the battle. Only when the young person finds meaning and significance in the mitzvot will those mitzvot become part of daily life. Parents who show and in an adult manner explain why these traditions are important to them will not have to force anyone.
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