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Mother’s Day when Killing Them Isn’t an Option: a Guide for Mothers of Teenagers

May 9, 2006
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When stuck with a rebellious child, gluttonous and thieving, the Torah has a tidy solution: Kill him. Or her. For those of you excited by the opportunity to practice a new mitzvah, be mindful that the rabbis, worried about the edict, say in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) : “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be.” The tradition both recognizes the impulse to do violence, and then brings us to our senses and to our obligations.

Still, it’s tempting sometimes, isn’t it?

I used to teach classes to parents of children in elementary school. The moms would arrive at my office like butterflies, wearing bright colors and alighting gracefully in their chairs. They talked a lot and shared stories of their week. We laughed and had fun.

When I started teaching classes for parents of pre-teens and teenagers, it felt as though the lighting had changed in the room. The moms wore darker clothes and darker expressions. Their mouths were tense little lines. They raised their hands to speak and didn’t speak much.

They were beaten-up and humiliated, like an NBA team defeated by a high school squad — a sure sign of a Mom at her wit’s end because of a sharp-tongued daughter.

“What happened to my sweet child? Someone took her in the night! This new child, the changeling, doesn’t like me and isn’t too likable herself. In fact, she acts like a bitch. She reminds me of the girls I didn’t like in middle school. Why is she so uncooperative, so rude, so dismissive?”

Sheepishly, they reported the insults hurled by their daughters.

“Mom, the reason you’re so strict is because you have a lot of personal problems. And everyone we know knows this about you. And they talk about it all the time.”

“The reason you won’t let me go to the mall with my friends is that you weren’t very popular when you were in middle school and you want me to be an outcast, too.”

Why would they do this?

Aside from dangling then withdrawing the carrot of a more permanent solution, the Talmud tells us that “every parent has an obligation to teach their child how to swim.” Our children don’t belong to us. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. This means that after all that SAT prep, when they finally do get into college, we want them to stay there without phoning twice a day because they are not crazy about their roommate or can’t get the course they want. And we don’t want them coming home after one semester because they have a stomachache and the food is better at home and because the bed in the dorm isn’t Tempur-Pedic.

I talk to parents about normal child development. When children are small, they beg you to come into their room and stay there as long as possible, especially at night. When they are teenagers, they get angry if you even look in their room, or enter without permission, especially at night. When they were small, they embarrassed you by screaming in the supermarket, now you embarrass them by singing, ever, or being too friendly, to anyone. They act this way because they are making space to grow away from you, to form their own identity. As they should.

Don’t look to teenage girls to remind you of your worthiness, dignity or charm: Both their hormones and their spirit tell them that this is the time to begin to separate from parents.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “straits,” or “narrow places,” For mothers of girls, the pre-teen and early teen years are your Mitzrayim. Eventually, when they turn 16 or 17, you’ll get to the promised land: Your old friend will be waiting, but now she’ll be a fine young woman. She’ll be nice to you again and you’ll be proud of her and she’ll be proud of you.

But until then, what to do? In my classes, I say to the parents over and over in every way I can think of: Don’t take eye-rolling as an insult. Think of it this way: At least they are listening. Don’t take any of this personally. Although they may be taller than you are and are certainly more quick-witted, they aren’t doing this to hurt you. What they are doing is not only normal, but necessary.

What about the fifth commandment, you ask, honoring parents? When children are young, Jewish law states that we must teach them to be respectful and kind, thoughtful and compassionate.

When you’ve got teenagers, honoring mother and father means doing it yourself. Honor yourself. Treat yourself with dignity. Even if your teenager makes you feel like dirt. Don’t join the attack. The rabbis tell us that we will be called to task in the world to come for every legitimate pleasure available to us of which we did not partake. Admire, nurture and delight yourself. Don’t look to the eye roller to do it.

How to celebrate Mother’s Day in Egypt?

For part of the answer, it’s appropriate to look to your partners in parenting.

Dads and significant others, you are on call today. Say to this beleaguered Mom, “You look beautiful.” Calling this normal-looking person beautiful helps counteract the propaganda of a culture that tells your daughters they need to look perfect.

Then tell her again, in private, and be specific. She works round-the-clock and she’s tired and cranky and hard on herself. Mother’s Day is the right time to remind her in detail how amazing you think she is.

And Moms, you should talk to other moms. Remember Mommy and Me? When you got to check in with fellow travelers about the proper color and consistency of baby poop, and how to manage sleep deprivation and no sex. Remember how you calmed each other down and laughed and commiserated? There aren’t many support groups for mothers of teenagers so mothers are alone, scared and ashamed — and unaware that it is just as bad next door. This Mother’s Day, find a private spot and call a friend who has a teenage daughter. Kvetch, laugh, remind each other that everything with children is just a stage. Take the long view. And have a pleasant Mother’s Day.

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best-selling parenting book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001). She is currently writing a book for parents of adolescents, “The Blessing of a B Minus.”

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