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Dear Dr. Batya,
My son recently told me that he no longer wants to be religious. This caught us off guard and we were quite devastated. Now we are not quite sure how to react and what to say. We want to do the right thing, whatever that is, for all of us. Please help. - R.S., Ra'anana
It sounds as if your son's news came quite unexpectedly. Whenever a family member chooses to break with established traditions or beliefs (whether religious or otherwise), it may come as a shock. While parents may or may not see that their children are questioning things, may or may not be aware that their child is not following all of the "rules" or see their child go back and forth on issues, many times when a child actually makes a statement or "comes out," it may nonetheless come as a surprise.
You have chosen a certain path for your family and believe that your way is best for them. When a child, regardless of age, says that he or she sees things differently and doesn't want to do it your way, it may feel as if he is challenging your very core beliefs as a parent and about life. This can be painful for everyone.
Faith is a very difficult subject. You can show your children the beauty in religion as you see it, but at the end of the day they have to choose what is right for them. Even if you make religion special and exciting and full of richness and wonder, there is no guarantee that your child won't see it as a burden or a waste of time. You personally can have faith, yet it may be hard to instill it in others.
Some children simply accept things and follow in their parents' footsteps. Others have many questions and are in search of answers. Their traditional schooling may not be able to give them what they need, and you and others in the community may or may not be able to answer their questions in a way that works for them. Often the topic of children "losing faith" is not discussed in religious circles, as there is sadly much shame and embarrassment which may further isolate a child.
While you may be hurt, and may want to talk about your feelings to your rabbi, a close friend or a professional, there are many things that you can do to help your son. Here are just a few suggestions:
1. While his beliefs may be different from yours and you may feel you have little in common, try to see the good in your son. In what ways is he kind and caring? What does he do for others? How creative is he? In what ways do you admire him? Have you told him and can you tell him these things now? Focus on what he does rather than on what he doesn't do. There is no one single way to be religious.
"Coming out," as he has, was not easy and he needs your support, friendship and caring now more than ever, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his choices. Can you be there for him while allowing him the freedom to experiment with a different and new way of life? You may discover that if you can, you will find a different way to achieve closeness.
2. Accept your son for who he is and where he is at the moment. He is entitled to his feelings and beliefs even if they differ from yours. No one is asking you to compromise your beliefs, just to be understanding that at this time, he sees things differently. Don't force your son to be who he isn't. Coercion will just send him further away. That said, your approach to a 14-year-old will differ from that to a 20-year-old.
3. Show him the respect that he deserves and insist that it be mutual. While you may see religion from a different perspective, look for ways that you can compromise and work together. Perhaps, for example, your son won't wear a kippa outside of the house but at home will not watch TV on Shabbat or will do so only in the privacy of his room. You have to decide just what is right for your family especially if he still lives at home. Other children at home will be influenced by your decisions.
4. Encourage him to talk about how he feels. Can you keep lines of communication open and be nonjudgmental so he knows that you are there for him and will allow him the freedom to say what he needs to say? This may be a very difficult topic for both of you as you may not only feel passionate, but you both need to recognize that there can be a lot of pain even when conversations are held calmly and with caring and compassion. Try to understand his perspective so you can better understand where he is coming from. Be a good listener.
5. Try to look beyond religion per se and explore the values that are important to you as a family. How is he on honesty, integrity and good deeds, for example? In what ways does he value and find meaning in being Jewish? All of these can help keep him connected and can help you appreciate your similarities rather than your differences.
Relationships with our children present many challenges. These challenges can enable everyone to grow.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. email@example.com