I applaud The Jewish Link for addressing the issue of substance and alcohol abuse in the yeshiva community; an issue of profound and critical importance. As the article and editorial correctly indicate, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that this is not an issue of concern in our community is naive at best, reckless and immoral at worst. Indeed, awareness and education, for both parents and teenagers, is essential if we are to address this problem comprehensively and responsibly. Additionally, I fully agree that open communication, honest discussion and ongoing dialogue between parents and teenagers are indispensable tools that must be fully employed throughout this process.
It does seem to me, however, that there is an important component that was absent from your editorial coverage. While parents must arm their children with the skills to protect themselves and educate their children regarding the devastating effects of alcohol abuse and drug use, the role of a parent does not end there. Quite frequently, the situations in which our teenagers find themselves in over their heads are facilitated by parents themselves, albeit unwittingly. Often, due to our passive compliance, our teenagers are found in situations where the temptations and pressures competing for their attention are simply too powerful and overwhelm their under-developed prefrontal cortexes. At such moments, it is not necessarily education and information that our teenagers lack, nor is there a lack of motivation on their part. They simply do not possess the psychophysiological wherewithal to safely manage and navigate these situations on their own. When—if, in fact—we actually sit down with our children and discuss the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it is quite possible that they are listening, tuned in and processing. But in no way whatsoever does that mean they possess the cognitive or emotional ability to make responsible choices in every setting.
To be frank, it is shocking and deeply disappointing how permissive many parents are when parenting the teenagers of our yeshiva community. Parents often worry that establishing clear expectations and setting appropriate limits will create a wedge between them and their children, thereby compromising and obstructing the lines of communication. At times, parents do all they can to avoid saying “no” to a child, out of a deep-seated fear that setting limits will trigger rebellious tendencies. This fear is amplified when teenagers challenge their parents with the proverbial “but everyone else’s parents allow it.” (Recently, it was actually a parent who expressed this very rationalization to me!) These concerns are, for the most part, unfounded and often reflect the parent’s own insecurities.
I fully recognize that we cannot, nor should we, attempt to monitor our teenagers’ every move. It is important for teenagers to develop into self-sufficient adults, which necessitates both poor decision making and periodic failures. Such experiences are indispensable components for their healthy development and maturation. At the same time, it is nothing less than criminal for parents to allow teenagers to participate in unsupervised gatherings/events/parties/reunions etc., turning a blind eye to the real and present dangers that they will undoubtedly encounter. It is simply unfair and, I would argue, cruel for us to expect our teenagers to be able to withstand the lure of a drink, a puff or a hit, when surrounded by unsupervised peers.
It would seem to me that the most substantial measure that we can take as a community is to reclaim our role as parents. This is not the time, nor the forum, to establish what the non-negotiable, forbidden lines should be. (Although perhaps that’s a conversation that should follow.) Yet, if we can, at the very least, commit to working together as a community of parents, we can greatly mitigate that dreaded fallout that we often fear, when acting as lone individuals. Our teenagers will not only respect us for insisting upon their physical and emotional safety, they will develop a genuine admiration for our sensible and decisive intervention. Most importantly, though, as the direct beneficiaries of our responsible parenting, our teenagers will experience a deep and profound sense of inner peace and security, which will ultimately allow them to achieve the greatest high imaginable.
By Rabbi Larry Rothwachs
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs is mara d’atra of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck.