Parent-Child Dynamics Shift Before Bar/Bat Mitzvah

A family educator offers words of advice to the family.

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Reprinted with permission from JewishFamily.com.

Most families immensely enjoy the day of their child's bar/bat mitzvah but do not necessarily appreciate the period leading up to the day. As emotions increase, so do tensions, questions, and other frustrations. The goal is not to decrease the emotions, but to find a positive framework for understanding them. 

Parent/Child Relationship Alters

The timing is exquisite. Enormous growth and change occurs for children between the ages of 12 and 14, and to acknowledge and celebrate that development is wonderful. One explanation for the intensity of the bar/bat mitzvah year is that it occurs during a year of growth for children and change within the parent/child relationship. Planning a major family event at a time when children are pulling away from the family is difficult. However, true to its roots, Judaism keeps the family engaged and enables families to move to a new stage of relationship with one another.

Adolescence Brings Big Changes

As children enter adolescence, change occurs in most aspects of their lives. Many move from a nurturing, often small, elementary school to a much larger middle school or junior high school. No longer are students always known and nurtured by their teachers. Their bodies change rapidly. Adolescents are often surprised by what greets them in the mirror each morning, and adolescence can be a time of instability and insecurity. Friendships are often fluid and volatile. Acceptance in the "group" is very important, and many will experiment with their identities in order to be included in a group.

For some, adolescence is a time of shyness. The anticipation of standing before a group made up of adults and their peers can seem overwhelming. Even those who appear unfazed are often much less secure internally than is apparent. The process of being afraid and insecure, working toward a goal, and succeeding with that goal is one that children will carry with them through adulthood. However, it is important that parents not downplay their child's fears. It is important that adults do not become so focused on their own responsibilities for the bar/bat mitzvah that they neglect their children's insecurities and fears.

Although adolescents are likely to turn away from their parents and toward their friends for acceptance and support, it is crucial that parents be available for them. As parents prepare for the event, it is helpful to model for children the notion that "nothing is perfect," and that we don't expect perfection from ourselves or our children. It is helpful for children to understand that mistakes will be made and that the goal for everyone is to do our best.

This is an age where children may be very critical of themselves and of their parents. They are always willing to point out any hypocrisy in their parents' lives. If parents can understand this as a stage in their child's life, as a universal aspect of separation, if they can listen and learn from what their children can teach them about themselves, everyone will gain.

Parenting Enters a New Phase

As children enter adolescence, parents enter a new phase of parenting. Parents realize that their child is no longer a baby. They remember their own adolescence, the positive and less-than-positive decisions and experiences of that time. The pain and isolation of adolescence is remembered, along with a strong wish to protect their child from similar experiences. There can be an enormous range of emotion as parents realize that a large proportion of their life has already happened. Suddenly their role is that of the parent of the bar/bat mitzvah, a role that when they were young belonged to someone who didn't look or act like they do now. At a time when adolescents believe they are all-powerful and can accomplish anything, parents are confronted with their own limitations and the weight of mortgages, college funds, and bar/bat mitzvahs to pay for.

As children grow, frequently becoming physically larger than their parents, the decision-making process in families needs to change. Both adolescents and parents need power and control. If the adolescent years are not to be a complete battle, families must renegotiate how decisions are made and enforced. Teenagers still strongly need limits--reasonable limits based on their increasing ability to make decisions about themselves. The bar/bat mitzvah process is full of so many decisions that if families have not worked out a decision-making model and are uncomfortable talking and listening to one another, the battles will be endless.

Parents must learn to gently let go. The old refrain from the preschool years of "pick your battles" must be remembered. Parents and children must work to figure out what is important and how each can get their essential needs met without trampling on the other. Parents must understand that as they are organizing a major family reunion, teenagers may be in the throes of wishing to separate from their families. As the teen grows more distant, parents often realize that this child will not be a child forever, that time is passing more quickly than they desire, and that there is no slowing it down.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is a Family Rite of Passage

Whose bar/bat mitzvah is it anyway? What an intriguing question. My belief is that a bar/bat mitzvah is a family rite of passage, not only an individual rite. Without encouragement and support from those around us, it is extremely difficult to move to a new stage of development. The bar/bat mitzvah is an event that marks milestones for children, parents, and grandparents. During a bar/bat mitzvah, especially of an oldest child in the family, everyone "moves up" a rung on the ladder of life. For most people, that brings accompanying simultaneous positive and negative feeling. Bar/bat mitzvah parents are in the "squeeze" generation and may feel pulled in various directions. The children have images of the day, the grandparents have ideas, and the parents themselves may have dreams. Their own parents, the grandparents, if they are still alive, are getting older and may not be able to do all that they once could.

One of the tasks of the "parent of the bar mitzvah" is to create a balance among all those worlds and needs. How can everyone get what they need out of this event? Are there ways to create win/win situations, rather than win/lose situations? The process of decision making is crucial. Can family members be made to feel that their thoughts and feelings are important and are taken into consideration, even if alternate decisions are made? As parents approach the bar/bat mitzvah, a key aspect of this is to be sensitive to everyone's intense feelings.

Parents' Expectations

Often, during a brit or baby naming, someone says, "well, we'll meet again at the bar/bat mitzvah." Everyone laughs and continues celebrating the birth of this child. And yet, somehow, everyone also knows that it is true. Many of these same people will be together again in 13 years for the next big event. Quickly, 11 or 12 of those years pass. One day a letter from the synagogue arrives and the bar/bat mitzvah planning begins in earnest. Into that planning goes a lifetime of expectations and fantasies. And baggage. Those who did and those who didn't have a bar/bat mitzvah have feelings about it. Sorting through those feelings, taking ownership of them, and separating the past from the present is a major aspect of bar/bat mitzvah planning.

In two-parent families, each spouse brings to the situation a unique set of expectations. Everyone grew up in different households, with different backgrounds, beliefs, and values. Parents must put aside the "my way is the only way" philosophy and negotiate a balance between separate worlds with separate histories.

In interfaith families, the emotional planning and expectations can seem overwhelming. The family member who was not raised as a Jew does not have history to rely on. It may be the first time that he or she has had to stand up before their own family of origin and assert their difference. Not having a history with Judaism, that person is creating something for his or her own children that he or she never experienced.

Children's Expectations

Children have their own set of expectations and feelings about a bar/bat mitzvah. They don't have the years of wisdom and experience to understand the intensity of the emotion for their parents. They can appreciate the importance of the bar/bat mitzvah in their own lives, but don't always comprehend how and why it is so important to those around them. They will learn about that in the years to come. We cannot expect them to understand it in the way we do. It is helpful for parents to attempt to view the experience through their eyes. Some aspects of the bar/bat mitzvah that may be important to the children include:

·        direct contact with the rabbi

·        becoming adults in the eyes of Judaism

·        having their friends and family with them

·        standing in front of the congregation

·        leading the congregation

·        reading from and holding the Torah

·        fear of making mistakes in front of everyone

·        the party

·        the presents

It is helpful for us to tune in to their fears, hopes, dreams, and expectations surrounding the bar/bat mitzvah. As we teach them our values and share our expectations, we can accept and respond to their needs.

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Margie Bogdanow

Margie Bogdanow is a family educator at a synagogue in Lexington, Massachusetts.