Acknowledge Positive Acts, Not Just Negative Acts
"Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms" (Genesis 37:2-4)
When a teenager (such as Joseph) is either a victim or a perpetrator of a disastrous event, the parents often appear to be completely surprised. "We thought we really knew our daughter"; "He knew he could talk to us about anything, so why didn't he . . . ?"; "It is so out of character for her to ... ". But the truth is that only on rare occasions are there not ample warning signs that we parents fail to notice, and when we do, we tend to misinterpret them.
Many parents, while still aware of the dangers out there, still believe that their own children are safe. They are smart. We instilled within them strong values and confidence. We are always there for them and they know it. This is all true, but when you look at the statistics below some cracks may appear in this belief:
20% of teenagers experience depression; 78% experience drinking by the age of 18; 43% have used drugs; 1 in 10 high school students has been purposefully hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend; 25% of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse; 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder) and 86% of those started between the ages of 12 and 20 years old.
It is easy when our children are young. They want and need to spend time with us. But as they enter the teenage years they gradually prefer the company of their friends and the privacy of their rooms. We accept it as a necessary stage of their development and search for identity. After all, we have all been there and we survived. True, we survived but survival is not hereditary. In addition, survival is not what we wish for our kids. We want them to be happy, to learn and grow, to realize their full potential.
Jacob is accused by the biblical commentators, ancient and modern alike, of making two mistakes: parental favoritism, and encouraging his children to tell on each other. While the first is categorically wrong (if you cannot control it, at least hide it), in recent years I find myself questioning the taboo against tattling. Nobody likes the kid who tells on his siblings, but can parents really afford blocking a major channel of information about their children? How are we going to know what happens in their lives? When school gets involved it is often very late. Their friends are as secretive as they are, and they expertly hide the truth from us. However, they are less guarded around their siblings, and the latter are always very curious. If I lost you because you think that I'm promoting the idea of training our kids to spy on each other and form KGB-like families - just bear with me for another paragraph please.
How do we reconcile the tension between parents needing to know more about their children, and the risk of sibling rivalry resulting from telling on each other like we see in the story of Joseph and his brothers? Experts on the subject tend to distinguish between tattling and telling. You are tattling if you tell on someone in order to get him into trouble. That's bad. You are reporting if you are telling on someone to keep her (or you) out of trouble. That's good. It is a beautiful distinction that keeps everyone happy, yet it is completely useless and potentially dangerous. Therapists often find it hard to determine if a teen's behavior indicates depression or it is simply acting like a teenager. Is it really smart to give a child the responsibility to decide when to report or when to keep quiet?
My imperfect suggestion is to train ourselves, as well as our children, to notice and report not only the bad things they see others do, but mostly the good ones. For every negative act our kids perform there are many more positive ones. The problem is that we focus on the negative and take the positive for granted. To help our children grow the way we pray and hope they would, we must be there for them not when they ask (that might be too late) but when we recognize the first warning sign.
Gali and I wish you and your family a Happy New Year.
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz