Thursday, November 23, 2006

At-risk teens

I've long believed the whole "at-risk teen" phenomnon is proof-positive that black hat Judaism is on its way down with a wasting disease. Not because the "at-risk teens" are druggies, or pathologically rebeluous, or otherwise abnormal, but because most of them are perfectly ordinary. They are kids who like to read, listen to music, play sports, or hang with friends. Kids who may not have a taste for serious learning, or the discipline to sit at a desk for long stretches at a time, or the brains to keep up with the top of the class. Kids who are curious or impatiant or positive they know more than their elders. Kids who are in a rush to grow up. Kids who just want tolerance and guidance as they find their own way into adulthood.

These are ordinary kids, then, ordinary kids, the sort of kids who flourish when given love and patiance and understanding. Unfortunately, they are also the types of kids often cruely labled "at risk." And, by the scores, these are the types of kids who are abandoning a religious community that tells them that unless they can look and act just like the the best and the brightest they aren't worth anything at all. How can Judaism survive if this continues? Yaakov Horowitz tells us more:
Over the past twenty years, I conducted hundreds of terribly painful ‘exit interviews’ with children and adults who have abandoned Yiddishkeit. I can tell you in no uncertain terms what it is that they wanted – and why they took their business elsewhere. They were looking for respect and understanding. Acceptance. Safe and nurturing home lives. Hands-on parents who offer unconditional love along with their guidance. Caring educators who dealt with their admitted misdeeds gently and privately (firmly was OK). The ability to be a bit different without being labeled or judged. More time for hobbies and more recreational opportunities. On an educational level, I can tell you some additional things that they needed. A slower pace of learning. More skill-based teaching. Visual and diverse learning.
Some simple, and absolutely intutitive right? So are these things being provided?
In many communities, I’m sad to report, exactly the opposite is happening. School hours are getting longer and longer. Kids have less time and opportunity to engage in desperately needed recreational activities. In fact, in some communities, normal sports activities are frowned upon or outright banned – sometimes for children above the age of ten years old!! Greater demands are being made on children. Schools that dismiss children are valued and pursued. Acceptance criterion for high schools is getting increasingly more challenging. On many occasions, I have clearly stated that in today’s climate I would probably not have been accepted to any ‘normal’ high school when I graduated eighth grade thirty-three years ago!!
The great Yaakov Horrowitz an at-risk teen? Talk about your near misses.
Most peculiar is the reaction of parents who respond to their fears by striving mightily to place their children in the most rigorous programs – the ones with the longest hours, the least in the way of recreation, and with the most strident demands on their children. The thinking is that their children will be safe there, as the ‘chevrah’ will be better and the ‘at-risk’ children will be excluded from those elite schools. However, this thinking is terribly flawed. For there is no guarantee that their child – or one of their children some time in the future of their family life – will not be one of those children who will need some adjustment, tolerance, or understanding. So, in effect, the parents are raising the bar – and the ante of this very high-stakes gamble – by opting to send their child to a program that purports to produce a ‘metzuyan’ or ‘mitzuyenes’ (exemplary children). But at the same time, they are greatly increasing the odds that their child may find the train running away from him or her. And, in all my years of dealing with the at-risk teen population, I have not noticed that the elitist schools have any lower percentage of kids abandoning Yiddishkeit. All the more so if you include those who were asked to “find another school,” midway in their school experience.
The answer, I think, is to lower your standards. Let your kids fail. Let them ask questions. Let them go through phases. Let them embaress you in front of the neighbors, expecially if the neighbor is a moron and an idiot and shallow self-centered git. Who cares what he thinks anyway? Is he the one who is going to visit you in the nursing home when you're old and useless? And remember two things (1) you don't owe the world a perfect child; but you do owe your child unconditional love; and (2) so long as you don't destroy the bridge that exists between you and your kids, they will always find their way back to you. Always.

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