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Should We Keep Our At-Risk Child at Home?
Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
We have 6 children ranging in age from a married daughter of 22 to a son of 8 years old. Things are well with us, b'h, regarding shalom bayis, parnasa and other areas of our lives.
We are writing to you regarding our 17-year-old son, who is a (very) at-risk teenager. We have been supporting him with testing, tutors, etc. throughout his school years, but nothing seemed to have worked. He's been in several schools since 9th grade, dropped out and is currently working full time. We have an excellent relationship with him; he is respectful and does not violate Shabbos/kashrus in front of our family members. But he is completely non-observant.
Our dilemma is with regard to his 4 siblings still in our home. We are so worried that they will pick up his habits and lifestyle. We have so many questions:
1) Should we ask him to leave our home, as many of our friends tell us to do? (We don't think that is a good idea)
2) How can we allow him to remain in our home and turn his back on all we hold dear?
3) What do we tell our other children? They all know what is really going on to some degree, depending on their age.
We are so torn over this decision. Adding to the confusion is all the diverse and conflicting advice we are being given by people. We are hearing, “be firm, be flexible, give him an ultimatum, always keep the lines of communication open;” on and on.
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 where you wrote about your confusion over getting conflicting advice from many different people, as it is something that I hear from so many parents are who are in your excruciating situation. I hope that this column will help you sort things out and not add to the swirl of information.
Before I get into the details, I’d like to inform you that from reading your letter I have a strong hunch that you are doing exactly what you ought to be doing. Why do I say that? Because you write that you have an excellent relationship with your son. 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 twenty-five 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/she followed a sibling who strayed from Yiddishkeit. I think that 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 uncorrected and unaddressed despite the fact that a child exhibited rebellious signs.
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 had mentioned that he was self-destructing (heavy drinking or drugs), if he was undermining your authority or the quality of life at home, or if you felt that 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 even a subject 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, visit their Rav to present their request for guidance regarding sending a child away from home. I do not think parents should make that dinei nefashos (life-or-death matter) decision without both of those components – medical and rabbinic advice.
2) Please review my mishpacha column Not Yet for profound guidance that I received from one of our leading gedolim, who told a father in your situation to 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 seventeen – for 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? I have a simple answer for you. Tell your children that you love them all equally and unconditionally; always and forever. And that means giving each of them what they need when they need it. Period. Exclamation point.
Explain to them that at this juncture in his life, your 17-year-old needs understanding and acceptance above all, and as difficult as this is, you are committed to provide this to him. This is the most honest and beautiful thing that 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 provide the platform upon which your son can gently and slowly build upon – and return to Torah and mitzvos.
I usually do not mix my Torah Thoughts and parenting columns, but I will make this exception and inform you of a profound dvar Torah that my dear chaver Reb Pinchas Gershon (P.G.) Waxman of Lakewood recently shared with me.
The Gemorah (Shabbos 89b) relates that when the Jews will stray from the path of Torah and mitzvos, Hashem will inform our Avos (patriarchs) that their children have sinned. Avraham and Yaakov Avinu will respond that they ought to be punished for their misdeeds. Yitzchok, on the other hand, will implore the Ribbono Shel Olam “Are they (Klal Yisrael) only my children? Are they not Your children as well.” The Gemarah notes that Yitzchok will continue to plead until Hashem spares Klal Yisroel from destruction.
This is quite difficult to understand. Why was Yitzchok Avinu the only one of the Avos who was able to defend the Jews at that time? This is all the more puzzling as Yitzchak was noted for his attribute of gevurah (firmness), so he should have been the last one of the Avos to successfully defend his children.
One possible explanation is that of all the Avos, Yitzchok was in a unique position to advocate for the Jews since he kept his son Esav in his house despite Esav’s numerous sins. He sent his beloved son Yaakov away when Esav wanted to kill him (not Esav), and furthermore, when Esav’s wives worshiped idols and Yitzchok was becoming blind from the smoke of their incense; he still did not ask Esav to leave home.
Therefore, Yitzchok was able to plead to Hashem: “I kept and loved my child Esav despite his significant flaws; You too, should [keep and] forgive Your children.”
I do not profess to understand Hashem’s workings, but perhaps when the Jewish people are one day in need of forgiveness, the 2 of you and all others who unconditionally love and believe in their at-risk sons and daughters will become Klal Yisroel’s Reb Levi Yitzchok Bardichiver and advocate for all of Hashem’s children.
(A day after Reb Pinchas Gershon told me his vort, he found a similar thought in the writings of the Chassidic rebbi, Reb Meir of Primishlan. For further discussion of this matter, see Rashi Yirmiyahu 31,15; Ein Yaakov, Panim Meirim Yayeitzei, Emes L’Yaakov Toldos 27,40)
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved