Photo Credit: Jewish Press
Rivka Press Schwartz

I work in a high school, which means that my stock in trade is mistakes. Teenagers are figuring out themselves, their worlds, their bodies and their brains, and inevitably they are going to make mistakes. Those mistakes are important; they give kids a chance to butt up against limits and learn valuable lessons.

I once heard someone say that our job is to keep them from making mistakes that are so bad, they can’t recover from them. There are mistakes, like cheating under pressure, that reflect a lapse in ethical judgment and might incur a consequence, but they can be (admittedly painful) learning opportunities with no lasting negative effects. And then there are mistakes, often involving substances, cars, or both, that change people’s lives. Your kid letting her GPA slide so she won’t get into her first-choice college is not a life-altering mistake. Getting so drunk that he endangers himself, or someone else, or doing something unsafe while driving – that’s different.


I don’t know if we are always clear enough with our kids about the distinction. Some things are our rules, or school rules. And some things are things that you shouldn’t do because doing so might irrevocably change the course of your life, or someone else’s. Our kids need to hear that from us very explicitly: that it’s not just a jumble of made-to-be-broken rules. Because binge drinking, or using harder drugs than alcohol or marijuana, or driving recklessly, just isn’t the same thing as cutting school.


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Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz is associate principal at SAR High School and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.