Oct 25, 2013

The Truth Can be Hard to Take

There are two schools of thought about why children from frum homes go off the derech.  One approach ascribes a specific reason or reasons to the phenomenon such as learning disabilities, molestation, not having the fundamentals of our emuna, and unhappiness.  Pinpointing the cause enables us - parents, teachers, the community - to do something about it; to make sure it doesn't happen or to be alert and helpful when it is already a problem.

The other approach maintains we have bechira and therefore, parents and teachers can't take credit or blame when a child picks a particular way of life.  We can do our best to teach and provide a good environment, but ultimately, how children turn out is out of our hands.  And this explains why children from wonderful homes, where other siblings are fine and frum, can be the black sheep.

Many years ago, Rabbi Brafman (principal of the yeshiva of Far Rockaway) wrote, "the consensus of professional and lay activists working with at-risk teenagers and dropouts has been that the overwhelming majority of their clients come from broken homes, orphaned homes, dysfunctional homes, or unhappy homes."

He was criticized for 1) being wrong - after all, dropout children strikes the best of homes, and 2) causing pain to the parents of these children by implying they are at fault for their children's rebelliousness.

Back in 1999, an anonymous therapist described as having a large Orthodox practice in the NY area, wrote the following in a letter to the Jewish Observer:

In the course of working with countless troubled youngsters, I have had the opportunity to discuss these issues with many mechanchim, therapists, and lay activists.  It is indeed the consensus among all those with in-depth experience in this field that these youngsters come from unhappy homes.  In the vast majority of cases, there were serious problems in the parent-child relationship that predated the rebelliousness.  In other cases, the child had a difficulty (ex. learning disabilities) and the parents reacted with criticism rather than being supportive.

It does indeed seem like this problem happens in "the best of homes," but we need to remember that what we see as a "good home" is often not how the child experiences his/her home.  People in the field are often shocked by the discrepancy between the parents' public persona and their private behavior at home.

So, while no [normal] parents purposely make their child's life miserable .. if the child becomes seriously rebellious you can be fairly certain that they made serious and persistent errors in their parenting, most often by being persistently and unreasonably critical.

.. There is a great hesitancy among those in the field to publicly state what they privately know.  I believe that this hesitancy, however well intentioned, is leading to a fool's paradise... This desire not to hurt people's feelings is preventing us from helping them solve the problem which they want to be helped with.

Even if it was true that some frum children become rebellious without the home being a major contributing factor (although I have never actually seen such a situation, and have never heard of such a case), no one would deny that in the vast majority of cases, this is not the case.  Are we not contributing to the persistence of this tragic problem by denying this reality? Would we recommend that doctors not tell their smoking patients that they are putting themselves at a high risk of getting lung cancer, in order not to hurt their feelings? Should the fact that some people smoke without getting lung cancer and that some of those who contract lung cancer never smoked, blind us to the fact that smoking is a major contributing factor for lung cancer? Likewise, should our concern for their parents' feelings prevent us from publicizing the well establish risk factors for teen rebelliousness? This seems to be a clear example of misplaced and misguided rachmanus.

When I meet parents of rebellious children, I am, of course, empathetic to their pain and suffering.  But I also point out to them those aspects of their relationship with their child that have likely contributed to the problem.  I also suggest that that although this information may be painful for them to acknowledge, it can also be a source of hope.  By realizing that the problem does not strike at random, but rather has a cause, it is within their power to significantly alleviate the problem.  Parents who make a serious attempt at improving their relationship with their rebellious child often see dramatic improvement in their child's condition.

I have often been admonished by these parents and children for not making this information known to the community, to challenge the belief that there is an "epidemic" out there striking families at random and that parents are powerless to prevent or alleviate this problem.  It is for this reason that I have written this letter.


  1. Parents often parent the way that they were parented. It may be very hard to realize that their own parents were neurotic, over-protective, over-possessive, hyper-critical, manipulative, toxic, or self-centered. I know a woman who was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She and her brother have both been drug addicts at times and now she is frum and in her 60's. Her poor parents (OBM) had seen their children struggle with addiction, incarceration, etc and probably had no idea that they were to blame. Just how does someone who had had such a traumatic past, change their mentality and way of parenting?
    OTOH, I know of a grandmother who had had to welcome her modernish grandchildren to her Shabbos table because they cannot go home to their stubborn parents who won't budge when it comes to any type of acceptance. She had been hard-nosed herself as a mother but she has had to mellow in order to give her adult grandchildren a kosher place to go for Friday night dinner. This is hard work for a "safta rabba" (great-grandmother) so any type of change is possible.

  2. " ... That they were to blame" - at the same time, the children had choices and did not have to take the drug route. There is personal responsibility for the choices we make.

  3. We could also say that at a certain point, children who leave the derech due to parenting issues could choose to stay frum and have a responsibility for their choices.