Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
We have six children ranging in age from a married daughter of 22 to a son of eight. Baruch Hashem, things are well with us regarding shalom bayis, parnassah and other areas of our lives.
Our 17-year-old son is a very at-risk teenager. We have been supporting him with testing, tutors, etc. throughout his school years, but nothing seems to have worked. He’s been in several schools since 9th grade, but dropped out and is currently working full time. We have an excellent relationship with him, as he is respectful and does not violate Shabbos/kashrus in front of our family members. But he is, at this point in his life, completely non-observant.
Our dilemma regards his four siblings still in our home. We are terribly worried that they will pick up his habits and lifestyle. Here are our questions:
1) Should we ask him to leave our home, as many of our friends suggest? (We don’t think this is a good idea.)
2) How can we allow him to remain in our home while turning his back on all we hold dear?
3) What do we tell our other children? They all know, to some degree and depending on their age, what is really going on.
We are so torn over this situation. Adding to the confusion is all the diverse and conflicting advice we are being given by others. We are hearing, “be firm, be flexible, give him an ultimatum, always keep the lines of communication open,” etc.
We would be most grateful for your advice. Thank you very much.
Rabbi Horowitz Responds
The first thing that struck me about your letter was the part about your confusion over getting conflicting advice from many different people. I hear that from so many parents who are in your excruciating situation. I hope this column helps you sort things out and not add to the swirl of information.
Based on your letter, I have a strong hunch that you are doing exactly what you should be doing since you describe your relationship with your son as excellent. Trust me, if your relationship survived his rocky school experience and crisis of faith, you should be giving guidance to parents yourselves.
While there is little I can do to completely allay your fears about your other children picking up your son’s rebellious behaviors, I can tell you that in my 25 years of dealing with at-risk kids and their families, I have found it extremely rare that a child went off the derech because he or she followed a sibling who strayed from Yiddishkeit. What often skews the data and leads people to believe that off the derech is “contagious” are situations where there are significant flaws in the family dynamics that are left unaddressed and uncorrected despite the fact that a child exhibited signs of rebellion.
Now for some answers to your questions:
1) I am usually reluctant to give advice to people I do not know, but there does not seem to be any reason for you to even consider asking him to leave your home. I would respond differently if you mentioned that he was self-destructing (i.e. substance abuse) or undermining your authority or the quality of life at home, or if you felt there was a clear and present danger of another child going off the derech. But none of these seem to apply, so I don’t think sending him away is open for discussion in your situation.
For parents who have one or more of those three conditions present regarding a rebellious child, I usually recommend that they first go for counseling to try and improve things, and to gain a clearer understanding of the issues at hand. Then, armed with that information, they should visit their rav for guidance regarding sending a child away from home. I do not think parents should make that dinei nefashos (life-or-death) decision without both components – medical and rabbinic advice.
2) Several years ago, one of our leading gedolim told me that a father in your situation should inform his child that he ought not feel disenfranchised from Hashem’s Torah and its eternal lessons just because he does not fully understand it all at the young age of 17. This is because growing close to Hashem and comprehending His Torah is a lifelong mission. You, as parents, can be most helpful in reframing your son’s “no” to a “not yet.”
3) What should you tell your children? Tell them simply that you love them all unconditionally – always and forever. And that means giving each of them what they need when they need it. Period!
Explain to them that, above all, at this juncture in his life your 17-year-old needs understanding and acceptance – and as difficult as this is, you are committed to provide this to him. This is the most honest and beautiful thing you can tell them; that they would get the same measure of unconditional love, time and acceptance from you if they had a crisis of any sort in their lives. Tell them that they, too, should love their brother unconditionally and not withdraw their emotional support for him due to his eroding faith in Hashem.
I cannot predict the future, but I can assure you that the best chance you have that your son will find his way back to Hashem is to follow the darchei noam approach I suggested. The bedrock of your unconditional love will hopefully provide the platform upon which your son can gently and slowly build upon – and return to Torah and mitzvos.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, and the founder and director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S. To purchase Rabbi Horowitz’s D’var Torah sefer, Growing With the Parsha, or his popular parenting tapes and CDs – including his 2-CD set on “Raising your Adolescent Children” – please visit www.rabbihorowitz.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 845-352-7100 x 133.