Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
We were taken aback when our 18-year-old son just called us from Eretz Yisrael (we live in Europe) and told us that he was coming home and wants to immediately go to work. He said that he is wasting his time in yeshiva, and just can’t take it anymore. He said that he will “run away from home” if we don’t allow him to go to work.
Our son was never much of a student in Hebrew or General Studies, but we honestly didn’t think things were so uncomfortable for him.
Help! What should we do?
Please start by taking a deep breath, making a cup of your favorite tea (for Americans I would have said coffee) and just relax. After all, it is entirely possible that your son had a bad day, week or month, and with the proper combination of problem- solving and parental love and guidance, you can help him get resettled in the yeshiva he is currently attending – or in a yeshiva setting that might be more appropriate for him.
It is of the utmost importance that you lower his anxiety as soon as possible and that you start getting comfortable with all reasonable outcomes – for the apparent emotional reasons, and also for pragmatic ones. Obviously, as his parents, you would like to calm him down. But perhaps more importantly, as the ones who will (hopefully) be best positioned to guide him through this challenging time/crisis in his life, it is crucial to realize that it is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation with an agitated person. And from the sound of things, your son is very highly agitated.
I have found that kids like your son (and people in general) get most anxious when feeling boxed in and without any options. It is precisely the frustration of feeling trapped that often drives kids to make rash decisions.
In is interesting to note that our Torah instructed Jewish kings not to completely surround an enemy on the battlefield, but rather to leave them an escape route in the event that they wanted to capitulate – even though placing an enemy under siege was common practice at that time. Why? Because a cornered enemy is a far more dangerous one than one whose back is not to the wall, and the Torah wanted to minimize casualties. And while I am certainly not comparing your relations with your teenager to a battlefield, the importance of reducing stress in situations like this one cannot be overstated.
In practical terms, please call your son immediately and tell him that you look forward to sitting down with him and discussing his life plans – with no preconditions. This means that you will assure him that an array of options will be open to him, including his wish to go to work. That should calm him down considerably.
Do your due diligence carefully and try to get honest feedback from previous rebbeim or teachers. They may help you discern between temporary frustration with his studies and more permanent reasons that may make full time learning impractical for his learning and personality profile.
If one or both of you are able to get away from work and familial obligations, and the finances of a trip do not present a challenge to you, I think it would be better if you would visit him in Eretz Yisrael rather than having him come home. This is because being there will allow you to get a handle on his current school setting, and will help you assess why things are not working out. And even if he ultimately comes home and goes to work, it will help you guide him if you understand why the wheels came off in the current setting.
I know that this advice of letting him know that all options are on the table – including some that you may not be thrilled with – may sound counterintuitive, but I believe that following this advice will result in a far greater chance of winding up with an outcome that will please you.
Here is an analogy that might drive this point home: Think back to the final few hours of Yom Kippur. In all likelihood, you were famished and waiting to finally eat and drink something. But somehow, once the fast was over, you may not have felt as deprived as you did earlier. Why? Because once you have the security of being able to eat, the hunger pangs don’t seem to be so all consuming.
So giving your son your blessing to consider the options he wants may actually make him comfortable enough to give school a second chance – knowing that “Plan B” is always available to him.