Encouraging love of learning in disenchanted teen

>>I read with great interest your posting about your son learning mishnayos, well done! You said kids just want to do the right thing etc and it’s better if they are not pushed, but this is not always the case. I didn’t want to post this in the comments, but I have a 14 year old son who has absolutley no interest in learning (he also wants a smaller yarmulke, never wants to wear his tzizis out, doesn’t want to wear a hat, wants to go to a less frum school etc etc – in general wants to push the boundaries on yiddishkeit). Whenver my husband tries to learn so gemorrah with him, my son puts up a great big fuss, and it’s really not pleasant. I am wondering if your husband himself learns after davening, I bet his does. Someone posted that it’s really to do with modelling, kids model the behaviour of their parents.

Now what do you do if your husband has no interest in learning? I would love my son to learn and it really hurts me that he doesn’t, he even spends much of Shabbos afternoon lying on his bed reading (usually non Jewish books). He has so much time to learn, but he doesn’t. (ALthough he does go to a shiur – not text based – after mincha, so maybe I shouldn’t complain). But he does not ever revise his gemorrah.

The thing is that he never sees his father sitting down to learn, and also his father never ever ever ever in all the years once asked him to learn without me first asking his father to learn wtih our son! This pains me deeply (that my husband, and now my son have no interest in learning), and has pained me for many many years (over 10). I have never told anyone this, as I don’t want to put my husband down to other people. I have had many phone calls over the years from my sons’ teachers telling me how he shows little interest in learning, but what on earth am I supposed to do about it? (I feel like telling them, well it’s not surprising as he never sees his father learn either!).  I have been told not to push my son, so we don’t, but I don’t really see how this will help the  situation. We dno’t push him and he doesn’t learn! Gemorrah is not a subject you can just drop, he will need to go to yeshiva in a few years and learn gemorrah all day, and I wonder how this will work. What do I do?<<

When I read your question, my sense was that there are a few issues behind the expressed concern about Torah learning.  When concerns are religiously based, we tend to not question what our deepest beliefs behind those concerns are, and assume that we have the right intentions in mind.  But although I believe there is real pain about your son’s lack of interest in Judaism and Torah learning, I have a sense that there’s a lot more going on than that.

My feeling is that the primary issues you’re facing are:  a) your relationship with your son isn’t good; b) your husband’s relationship with your son isn’t good; c) your marriage isn’t good; d) you’re very unhappy in general.  Please forgive me in advance for making assumptions that may not be accurate.

Yes, I said in the past that children want to do the right thing, and want to be close to their parents.  That goes along with the following caveat – when children are treated with acceptance and appreciation for who they are, they want to do the right thing.  When they feel a strong and positive bond to their parents, they will strive to emulate their parents. When they feel the heavy weight of expectations they can’t meet or don’t want to meet, it’s a different scenario altogether.

What happens if a child doesn’t feel accepted for who he is?  What if he senses that the approval he receives is dependent on him acting in a certain way, or doing certain things? Yes, we should have standards for our children and hold them to those standards.  A child can see his parents are displeased with bad behavior and appreciate good behavior.  But he should know that he is loved for who he is at the core, even if he doesn’t always live up to our standards.  This isn’t easy to do as a parent, particularly for some children, who due to behavior or personality, are harder to love and accept as they are.

Your son is making it clear that he doesn’t find the way Judaism is practiced in your home meaningful or positive.  This isn’t about gemara – this is about a general dissatisfaction and perhaps cynicism about the value of the life you’re telling him to lead.  He’s not finding inspiration by watching how this plays out in the lives of the adults around him.  Your husband isn’t the only influence on your son.  There are people who are married to spouses who aren’t religious at all who have been successful in giving over a love for Judaism and learning!

Don’t make yourself a victim or tell yourself you have no power.  You’re placing a lot of blame on your husband for things that you have plenty of room to affect for the better.   Stop blaming him and start owning your part – this is a hard thing to do, because you are getting some kind of payback for thinking the way you’re currently thinking that you’ll have to give up.  What are those paybacks?  You’re the one who knows yourself, and you’re the only one who can answer it.  I’m guessing that one very big thing is that you don’t have to be accountable.  No matter what happens to your son, you can say it’s because he didn’t have a father who learned with him, or whatever else.

But maybe you’re wondering, where do you have power?  The mother is the main one who creates the home environment.  No matter who your husband is or isn’t, you can become an emotionally safe and loving person for your son, so that in your presence your son feels secure and accepted to be the person he is, with all of his flaws, fears, and ambivalence.

Support actions that you like and focus on that, and you’ll get more of it.  Focus on all the things your son doesn’t do, and he’ll get the feeling that he’s never good enough and no matter what he does, he can’t make you happy.  I’ll turn the examples you gave upside down: instead of ‘he doesn’t want to wear a hat’, think with appreciation that he wears a yarmulke; instead of ‘he doesn’t want to wear his tzitzis out’, think how wonderful it is that he wears tzitzis even at times when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient; instead of focusing on the secular literature he reads, think how glad you are that you know where he is and what he’s doing, that he chooses decent quality books to read (if that’s true), that he’s not hanging out on street corners with unsavory friends engaging in dangerous or immoral behavior.  You can see where I’m going with this, right? :)  Whatever negative you feel, turn it upside down and try to find the positive in it.

What if you take your son to the Jewish library (if you have one) prior to Shabbos, and tell him you know how much he loves to read, and you’d like to help him find things he can enjoy that are in the spirit of Shabbos?  Show him that you understand he’s bored when there’s nothing to do, and are willing to exert yourself to help him find things.  What about taking him to the public library? There are things like inspiring biographies of famous people, motivational books written specifically for teens – maybe it doesn’t match your ideal of Shabbos reading, but it can still be a positive way for your son to use his time.  What about making time to play a board game or card game with him on Shabbos (eg Rumikub)?

Start consciously noticing all the good things your son does every single day – make it a goal to list ten different things a day.  It will be hard at first because you’ll be looking for big things, and you’re going to have to start noticing the small things that you take for granted, or things that don’t seem noteworthy at all.  Don’t tell your son you’re doing this; your attitude towards him will shift and he’ll feel it.

You can be enthusiastic and supportive of whatever learning he does – perhaps let him know you’re so proud that he chooses to go to a Torah lecture on Shabbos afternoon during his free time.  Who cares if it’s text based or not? Maybe you can bake something special for him to have when he gets back from his lecture.  Take five minutes when he comes home to sit down with him while he has a refreshing drink or a treat, and ask him what he learned.  You can share your thoughts, too.  Keep it light and positive, with the focus on the good person he is.  This goes very far in creating a positive feeling towards learning.

I’m going to try to clarify what is meant by the recommendation not ‘to push’.  That means, let go of your emotional expectations and the negative energy that you’re projecting along with it.  It doesn’t mean you stop trying to be a good role model – be a person who has joy in her Jewish life, a person who learns on her own or values those who learn.  Model for your son what a life of meaning in Judaism is to you.  It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it’s really what matters to you.  Kids can sniff out hypocrisy and preaching from miles away, so don’t start faking it.  Think about why you do what you do, what it is you do that gives meaning to your life.  I share these things with my kids in conversation on a regular basis.

It seems there is a lot of resentment and anger towards your husband.  You’re not expressing it directly, and it’s understandable to have so much frustration when you feel your child’s other parent isn’t working with you to create the home you want.  But realize that as admirable as your goals for Torah learning of your son and husband are, they are rooted in ego.  We develop ideas of what the people in our lives should be, and how they should act so that it reflects well on us – and then we get upset when they don’t meet our expectations.  Let go of the expectation – it’s not serving you well and you’re causing yourself to suffer.

Finally, accept that maybe your son isn’t a person who will flourish in the arena of academic study, regardless of how loving and accepting you are.  Every person has unique strengths, interests, and abilities – in the Orthodox community there’s a Lake Wobegone attitude that all boys can be great learners and spend their teen years and up in intensive daily study for hours at a time learning in an intellectual and abstract way.  May I introduce the possibility of realism to this scenario? 😆

Don’t worry about what will happen in a few years, or assume that if your son doesn’t have interest in gemara now that he’s doomed.  Nonsense.  If later on he feels it’s important to him, he’ll exert himself to make up lost ground.  But not every young man will feel gemara is primary to him, and not every young man should be directed to full time yeshiva studies post high school – and that’s okay!  I know it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest that, but there are many ways to know G-d and live a meaningful religious life.  And there are many other parts of Torah except the Talmud:  Chumash (Bible), Navi (Prophets), halacha (Jewish law), mussar (study of character development) – there is so much a person can learn.

You didn’t ask about suggestions for your marriage, but everything I’ve said about accepting and encouraging your son could be applied to your husband, too.

I realize that all of this requires a change in mindset, and changing mindsets and the habits that go along with them is challenging.  It will take time, and it will take conscious effort.  But I guarantee that you, your husband, and your son will all be significantly happier if you do!


5 thoughts on “Encouraging love of learning in disenchanted teen

  1. I really enjoyed this post Avivah, and would like to add just two point.1- A mother can (and should) learn herself too! In our home, the kids hardly ever see their father learning since he does it in shul or on his way to work. However, they do see me taking a book, davening, and praising them whenever they take one out too.
    Point 2 is that I think that the modeling method is true not only parents to kids but kids to parents too. Dh works very hard and usually rests a lot on shabbat. But somehow, our son growing (he is now 7) and spending a large time a his time learning (we are blessed with him, b”h), has imparted a learning atmosphere to the house and I believe it was made my husband ask our son to learn with him (something we had been talking a lot in the past but never worked out …) .
    Of course I realize that my son is not a teenager but I do think these two points are applicable to your otherwise very good post.

  2. Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed this post. It’s apropos at a time when we are reflecting on our past year’s behavior and looking forward to a new and better year.

  3. Aviva , loved your answer, open honest and to the point and very meaningful. Something all of us can use to evaluate our relationships with our spouses, children and ourselves!

  4. Wow! I can really relate to some of this poster’s concerns. While my son is in a “shtark” yeshiva, he is not prone to learn in his spare time, nor does his very tired abba who is running a large business, commutes, has health issues, and is a ger (no background). HOWEVER, dh does daven profusely for his own teshuva and that of his son, listens to CDs in the car, makes minyans when he can, treats people with respect and dignity, visits the sick often, and is really a mentsch! I can’t recommend enough, “Women’s Wisdom” by Rav Shalom Arush. It will address all of your concerns and more. As I work on my teshuva, my kids change tremendously.

  5. i loved, loved, loved your response. you should seriously write a parenting book.

    i usually don’t say things like this, but as a BY graduate from a lubavitch family i have an appreciation of gemara and chabad values. (as my principal once told me “in BY you’re THE lubavitcher and in lubavitch you’re THE bais yaakov girl..” ) you could add Chassidus to the list of things he might want to study and thrive in. chabad’s approach is very practical and learning is less of a focus for learning’s sake.
    i have no idea how you feel about this, but i thought i would throw it out there. good shabbos!

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