Teenagers

It was traditional for the rabbi to declare on the occasion of a Bar Mitzvah: "Today you are a man!" (and for a Bat Mitzvah: "Today you are a woman"). Of course, in reality we don't become transformed from child to adult in a moment; it is a process. Each day we mature and, hopefully, develop. When a boy turns thirteen he does not have all the faculties, experience and wisdom to act alone, without guidance from parents and teachers. According to Jewish law (Talmud, Kiddushin 30a), parents retain their responsibility to guide their children until they are in their twenties (thereafter it is assumed the child might resent any parental interference).

However, it is true that Judaism considers that, at a comparatively young age, we are expected to accept responsibility for our actions. We are used to hearing a great deal about the rights of adolescents, and it is only realistic to treat people as adults if we want them to behave as such, but the emphasis should be on their responsibilities.

Although 'adult' in Jewish eyes, from age thirteen and twelve, for boys and girls respectively, parents still bear responsibility for raising them. So long as children 'are eating at their parents table', to use the halachic (Jewish legal) terminology, parents are responsible for them. However, the responsibility of children towards their parents is equally strong. The fifth Commandment requires children to act towards their parents in a respectful manner. Being an adolescent does not give licence to speak with disrespect or disobey parents.

The role of parenting is at its greatest during the teenage years. It is at this stage that youngsters are intelligent enough to gain most from instruction. This is not the time for parents to back off and lie low; quite the reverse, this is the period when parental involvement is most needed. In the Talmud (ibid) there is a discussion about the most appropriate age to educate one's child. One rabbi suggest between ages sixteen and twenty-two, whilst another says between eighteen and twenty-four. Rashi commentates that this is because at this age parents can have the greatest influence. Quite apart from today's assumption that adolescents are hostile to guidance, Jewish Social Values views them as ready to learn and develop.

Moreover, Jewish sources view parents as responsible for the conduct of their adolescent children. In a well-known Talmudic passage (Shabbat 54b), it is stated that the parent is considered culpable for any wrongdoing committed by members of his household that he could have prevented but did not. This cannot refer to minors, as they are free of moral responsibility. Rather, it refers to the behaviour of teenagers for whom the parents retains responsibility to guide and direct. Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 4:1) considers a parent who nonchalantly watches their child become delinquent to be so severely negligent that repentance will not rectify it.

However, parents must understand that a teenager is different from a child and the parenting needs to be adapted accordingly. The greatest Jewish rule on parenting is the Biblical teaching (Proverbs 22:6) to "Educate a youth according to his own path." Parents need to work with their children, build on their strengths and find ways to accommodate their immaturity. Parents should not be afraid to exercise their parental responsibility towards their teenage child, but they need to do so with wisdom and sensitivity. A key lesson from Jewish thought is that parents must exercise a duality of approach in guiding teenagers. Whilst setting them high standards of mature behaviour, they must be sensitive to their continuing dependence and adolescent needs.