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When Good Children Go OTD

I know families with an OTD child that are very right wing, moderate Charedi, and right wing Modern Orthodox.
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The problem seems to be far worse than anyone thinks. We may even be at an epidemic level. Everywhere I turn these days it seems, I find a family where at least one child has gone OTD (Off the Derech–away from the religious path). Or at least does not follow the Hashkafic path laid out by their parents.

Many of them are all from fine families. Exemplars of great parenting. Nothing dysfunctional about them. The parents have many children all the rest of which are the obvious results child rearing by 2 great parents. Most of their children do fine in the Hashkafic milieu in which they were raised and in which they live. And yet it seem to be increasingly the case that at least one child has no interest in towing the family religious line.

In the families that I know about it seems the problems tend to begin in mid to late elementary school or early high school.

The question is why is this happening? What is it that is driving this OTD phenomenon in good families? It is very understandable when this happens in dysfunctional families where physical or mental abuse exists either between parents; between a parent and child; or both. It does not take rocket science to see why a child associates their strife their parent’s lifestyle. If they are a religious family, then religion is associated with that strife.

But what about the good families with good children where one of them does not want to have anything to do with their family’s religious way of life? Unfortunately I know of far too many situations like these. Hashkafos don’t seem to matter that much. I know families with an OTD child that are very right wing, moderate Charedi, and right wing Modern Orthodox. None of them are so strict as to warrant the kind of rebellion they have experienced from at least one child.

I have no real explanation. But I suspect it has something to do with the current pressure that schools and thereby parents put on their children to excel in their religiosity, Limudei Kodesh or Limudei Chol. I am constantly hearing about how schools of all Hashkafos are ‘rasining’ their standards. That is impacted negatively by the times in which we live. By that I mean the great distractions that now exists that did not exist in the past. Distractions that expose children to a much easier lifestyle than their parents insist upon. Distractions that take away from their study time. Distractions that cause them to question matters of faith. These are distractions that those of us over the age of 30 never had when we were growing up.

The internet, its ease of use and availability, and the ability to easily hide one’s involvement with it puts pressure on young people now – as never before. No matter how much we try to discourage it, limit it, or ban it, it is so pervasive that it is impossible to avoid the influence it has on children. Children can access anything they want as quickly as they can delete it from a screen. A child now has an unprecedented and unfettered window to the entire world. A little curiosity about a taboo subject will beget websites and images that can easily pull a child away from their parents’ influences. It is amazing that there aren’t even more OTD children than there are.

Coupled with this is the increased pressure put upon children in our day to be more religious and be better students than ever before.

The pressure to excel and adopt ever increasing Churmos into our lives has become so ingrained that not conform to these new standards is unacceptable.For example violating a Chumra is as painful to a family as violating a Halacha. I know one family that feels great pain that a child now uses non Chalav Yisroel products. I hasten to add that they are a very loving family – accepting of that child and allowing her to bring non Chalav Yisroel products into the home and use them freely. But it still pains them internally.

And how can any self respecting parent not want their child to excel in school? So with every increase in the amount of material to be mastered, there is a parental motive to see to it that their child measures up. Whether it is the Charedi standard of Limudei Kodesh or the MO academic standard. And in many cases – both.

If you combine the two phenomenon of increased pressure (whether religious or in the level of study)in the home and in school with the ubiquity of the internet – I think one can understand why the OTD phenomenon even in good homes might be near epidemic levels.

I would add that the fact that as the religious population increases, so too do the number of children going OTD – even if the percentages may be the same. But if I had to guess the percentages have increases too and not only the numbers.

I don’t know how to solve any of these problems. But I do have a few thoughts about it. First we ought to be aware of the problems and to recognize that we live in unprecedented times. One cannot for example ignore the internet. Nor can it be successfully banned. But one should do the best they can to set up parental controls, rules, and guidelines about its use. And avoid giving very young children hand held devices.

Of course the most important factor is to love our children unconditionally. Even – and perhaps especially – if they are at risk or OTD. They must know that they will always be loved; part of the family; and welcomed in the homes. Even if they are Mechalel Shabbos, and eat Treif. A bare headed son or daughter whose modesty does not measure up to family or community standards must be accepted. No matter what others in your community think! That may not bring them back. But it will for sure not push them away should they ever want to come back.

Another much harder thing to accomplish is to change the current penchant of religious schools to demand ever increasing religious standards for – not only their students but their parents.

The same thing is to be said with the ever increasing academic standards; or Torah study standards. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be top schools in an area of study in either Limudei Kodesh or Limudei Chol. But they should be special schools reserved for the very best, brightest and most highly motivated students among us. Putting a child that does not have those qualifications into schools like those will almost certainly set up them up for failure. And failure should never be an option.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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