Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Every Day For Our Teens

Yesterday, I was in Massachusetts for my great aunt's funeral.  My Aunt Dorothy, a"h, was 99- a fiesty lady, with a love for Judaism, Tefilla, and music.   After the funeral, we had the opportunity to stop at the home of the family of Ezra Schwartz, a”h, to pay a shiva call. There were no words that could sufficiently express what we felt nor could we truly comfort the parents and siblings. When we arrived, the governor of Massachusetts was there. Ezra's mother shared with him a bit of the story of Ezra's last day, as she had heard from his friends. She shared that he initially did not intend to go on the chesed trip that day. He then found out that there would only be six boys available to go, and therefore felt he should go. He was very tired, and said, “I'll sleep on the bus.” He said to his friend, “Who knows if we'll have the same chance tomorrow?”|

Upon hearing this story, the Mishna in Avot 2:4 came to mind. The mishna states, “ Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” How does one know the day of one's death? One must live each day as if it is one's last.

One leaves as shiva visit like this one with great sadness, but also with the realization that one must be thankful for all one has. We often don't appreciate what we have until it is no longer there. We leave inspired to remind ourselves to be thankful, grateful and make the most of each moment of each day.

What better message to relay and with which to enter on Thanksgiving? How can we remind ourselves each day to be thankful?

In this past Shabbat's parashat hashavua, in Bereishit 28:16, Yaakov awakens from his dream and says, “|Indeed, Hashem is in this place, yet I did not know!" Yaakov did not notice that Hashem was with him until that moment. I maintain that that is what Thanksgiving is all about - noticing that Hashem is in our lives. What does that have to do with Thanksgiving, and how can we relay that message to our teens? I say, the answer is berachot. “Berachot?” you might ask.

Eytan Kobre in his article "The Thanksgiving Project"  speaks of the incredible opportunity that our daily berachot provide in our focusing on being "thankful" each day.   The Kuzari notes that making berachot on the physical act of eating  can "greatly heighten the pleasure we derive and our appreciation for simply being alive."  It's an opportunity to have a bit of Thanksgiving in our daily lives.

 As parents of teens, we always struggle with how to inculcate this realization in our children. In fact, Rabbi Jay Goldmintz shares that these “middle years” are a normal time for children to question. “At this stage of religious development, some have begun to feel the tug of alternatives to the way that they were brought up.” Rabbi Goldmintz has shared how difficult Tefillah is often for children in middle school.  

Tefilla might be hard for some of our teens, but how about berachot?  Each month I meet with students right before Rosh Chodesh to help them write the inscriptions that will be placed in the Chumashim that they will receive from Yavneh Academy in honor of their bar/bat mitzvah.  I ask the students to consider, now that they are obligated in mitzvot, which mitzvah would they choose to work on and improve?  Very often children choose "berachot" as the mitzvah. It's easy to do, and takes no time, and it warms my heart when students think that is an important mitzvah.   As parents, we can stress these simple daily berachot in our homes, and thereby stress daily thanksgiving and focus on “Hashem is in this place.”

How about inculcating some "Hashem is in in this place" into Thanksgiving itself?       

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin  quotes a pasuk in Tehillim "Zoveiach todah yachabdoneni" "One who offers an thanksiving offering honors Me." Rashi understands the word "todah" as "admission" or "confession" instead of "thanksgiving."  The word l'hodot means both to admit and to offer thanks.  Rav Hutner, z"l, in discussing the beracha of Modim in the Shmoneh Esrai, feels that the two definitions complement each other.  When one says "modim" one admits that he cannot do it alone and needs the assistance of Hashem.   Once one admits that, one can truly express appreciation and thanks for what one has.  That is what Hakarat HaTov,recognizing the good,” is. First one must recognize that one is dependent, and then one can truly say "thanks." 

|Although Thanksgiving was not established by “the rabbis” it is a wonderful opportunity to help our children know that there is indeed Hashem in this place. We can be thankful each day as we say our berachot/blessings for all the blessings we have received. And, as Ezra, a”h, has taught us, to be thankful for each day and live it to the fullest.

Advisory Update

Sixth Grade Advisory- Students began a unit called "Hey Dude, That's Rude"  - a unit on Manners and etiquette when it comes to interacting with others.

Seventh Grade Advisory-  As part of their empathy unit and Project Respect students focused on, Why do people become homeless?  How do we usually treat or feel about the homeless?

Eighth Grade Advisory-
Students began a unit on Parent-Child Relationship.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My High School Reunion And High School Choice

Last night was my high school reunion.  We all look exactly the same despite one of us being a grandmother!  (She and her daughter married young!)  We sat down with our classmates, and it felt like we had never left. 

This experience brought to mind a 2012 New York Magazine article, "Why You Truly Never Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior.  This article spoke to me as I attended my reunion and thought about who I had become, and as I sit with our eighth grades who are now choosing their high schools.

Senior describes how the high school years make a significant impact on the development of a person.  (This article contained numerous points of interest, which will definitely be fodder for future articles).  "Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence." This phenomenon is called "reminiscence bump" - suggesting that memories from ages 15-25 are most vividly retained.   She quotes Ralph Keyes, "Is There Life After High School?" "Somehow those three or four years can in retrospect feel like 30."   Interestingly enough, in the research, these years until recently were not given enough credit.   For many years, researchers believed that ages 0-3 were the essential years, and beyond that it was "tweaking." Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University asserts, "If you're interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it.  But, if you're interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years." 

Steinberg points out that our preferences in life are often based on those adolescent years.  For example, "No matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent." 

Neuroscience explains why this is.  As I've mentioned before in this column, just before adolescence the prefrontal cortex begins to rapidly develop. This area of the brain governs our ability to "reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses and self- reflect"- all of which are intellectual skills needed to develop an identity.  "Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty, can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we're now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self- concepts or reject.  'During times when your identity is in transition,' says Steinberg, it's possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.'"

There are a number of other neurological changes in adolescence that make this time period in life so impactful. One such change is that there is more dopamine activity during this time period than during any other time of life.  This causes everything an adolescent feels to be more intense. 

To make this all even more "intense"  psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen point out in their book Escaping The Endless Adolescence, that a century ago when adolescents did not continue on to high school and worked in factories or farms they spent their days alongside adults during these tenuous years.  Now, "teens live in a biosphere of their own" as they spend only 16 hours per week with adults and 60 with their peers (and even more in Yeshivot).  Then students create their own hierarchies and divisions based on what they deem important- clothes, looks, sports ability. It is easy to be labeled in this environment. According to researcher Bene Brown, 90% of adults interviewed said "their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens." And, whatever strategies we gain to fight those feelings during the high school years, we generally will use for life. 

As I attended my reunion and read Ms. Senior’s article, it again struck me how important the choice of high school is in a child’s life. It cannot be said better than Steinberg said. These years determine “how people become who they are.”
We, therefore, do discuss with our students in Advisory- whom do you want to be come in the next four years?   First, what do they think high school is like? How do they envision high school and the high school experience? Second, how do they envision themselves in high school? What kind of person would they like to become in the next four years? This is a difficult conversation for some students who have never seriously thought about the person they want to be. This is the age when they can begin to think in this way.  And, even if the high school decision is already made, it is good for your child to think about- how do I want to grow in high school?  Of which opportunities should I take advantage?  Should I wean myself from my present friends and look for ones who are a better influence on me?  Do I want to become more independent and responsible in high school and rely less on my parents to help me with work?  Do I want to take my religiosity more seriously?   High school is an opportunity for our children to start fresh. We want them to take this step with thought about whom they can become.

As parents, we need to ask the same question, “Whom do we want our children to become?”  The research clearly states that during these next years their identity is formed, their self-concept is solidified and their preferences are determined- from their choice of music to choice of friends.   

A Pew research study in 2011 found that the largest share of Facebook friends- 22%- are high school friends.  Although I may not have kept in touch with many of my high school classmates, as I saw them last night I knew that they all played a role in forming who I am today.   I can still recall the conversations we had hanging out by the payphones and the carbon paper we used to take notes for someone who was absent. (Yes, I went to high school in the Stone Age).   We reminisced about the teachers, the trips, the color wars and the workload.   I look back on those years as the right choice for me.  May those of us who are making choices for our 8th graders find similar success.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Students continued their Organization Unit and further focused on locker management.

Seventh Grade-  Students flexed their muscles and engaged in “empathy exercises” and focused on the importance of not judging a book by its cover.

Eighth Grade-  Our 8th graders focused on the skills of goal setting and set goals for this year as they lead into high school. They each set these goals on a website called “Future Me” and will receive a list of the goals they made this week the day after graduation. Will they be able to say they achieved their goals? 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

What's In Your Child's Backpack?

What's in your child's backpack? Papers from the first day of school crumpled up on the bottom? A half-eaten sandwich from two weeks ago? (Hopefully not!) There are those children who carry everything they own with them- even taking it all home. The backbreaking backpack tends to be of big concern for parents and students. The backpack has been a source of stress for middle schoolers since the beginning of time. (Or, more correctly, since the late 1960's when school backpacks were first produced).

We do teach the skills of organizing one's backpack in Sixth Grade Advisory, (see below), but students who are by nature disorganized have a hard time implementing the strategies for an extended period of time. Then there are our “nervous Nelly” students. They are afraid to leave something at home or to not bring something to class, so they will never let go of carrying everything- despite our best intentions in assisting them in doing so. Some of those students are our most disorganized who have discovered a way to cope with their disorganization- you'll never forget anything if you have everything!

What should the parent's role be in helping a child keep his backpack organized? How can we as parents ensure that our children are bringing home what they need and only what they need? I think the first response is that middle schoolers still need their parents! I know that first time parents of sixth graders often struggle as they feel their children are in middle school now and they should not have to take a hands on approach at this age. Realize your child is now balancing nine different teachers, with nine different expectations and nine different sets of supplies! Most disorganized students do need their parents to help them sort it out and monitor their progress at the beginning. Some might need that supervision longer. Typically speaking, the backpack is often the tip of the iceberg, and the disorganization is often more widespread.

How do I know if my child is disorganized? According to Donna Goldberg, author of The Organized Student, the organized student:
  • Doesn't carry everything he owns in his backpack (I'd add to this, that if the backpack is neat, and your child says there are other reasons why the backpack is full- this may not be disorganization).
  • Can identify and bring home the books, supplies, and worksheets he needs in order to complete his homework.
  • Can locate his finished homework in class and hand it in on time (Yes, there are many students who do their homework and neglect to hand it in, or e-mail it to a teacher).
  • Can study efficiently because he knows when tests are coming up, has set aside enough time to study, and doesn't waste time looking for class notes and handouts.

The disorganized student on the other hand,
  • Frequently loses papers.
  • Doesn't hand in assignments on time at all.
  • Has a backpack full of crumpled paper and random objects.
  • Can't break down long-term projects and misses deadlines.
  • Leaves everything for the last minute.
  • Disrupts home life with frantic searches, urgent requests for late- night help, and anxiety ridden meltdowns.

Like any other skills, organization skills can be taught. It is tricky when a parent attempts to share tips with a middle schooler. They would take the advice very eagerly from a stranger, but when a parent suggests it... not exactly. The less emotional we get about the process, the better.

Mrs. Goldberg's book is a great resource. I also want to share with you a bit of what we did this past week in Sixth Grade Advisory, as we began our Organization Unit focusing on lockers, backpacks and the home workspace. Parents of seventh and eighth graders should find this section helpful as well.

One method we discussed with them was the P.A.C.K. Method.
P=  Purge
  • Clear enough space on the table or floor to spread out
  • Have a large garbage can or bag within reach.
  • Remove everything from your backpack and lay it  out.
  • Throw things out that are obviously garbage.
  • Make a pile of things you don’t need to carry around anymore.  

    A= Accessorize
  • Make a list of accessories that will make it easier for you to stay organized. (ex. Pencil case, folders, binders, three hole puncher etc.)

C= Categorize
-Separate everything else that came out of the backpack into  piles- textbooks, notebooks, loose paper, planner or any other category you think.
- Make a pile of everything you need for the day. (If you are doing this at home, make a pile of what you need for homework)
- Sort all loose papers by subject.  Use paper clips to separate them if you do not have folders (yet).  
- Papers that you do not need anymore and can be filed, put in the folders that the Advisor gave you. Label the folders “To Be Filed-J.S.” and “To Be Filed-G.S.”
- Put back all your books neatly.  We recommend size order so it’s easier to find items.
- If your backpack has many sections, decide which section will be for what.  
- Extra-curricular stuff- like music, i-pod, cellphone, balls etc. should be in a separate section.

     K= Keep it up.
    -  You should go through your backpack on a regular basis. We would like everyone to go through their bookbags every Sunday evening.  

This system is great for lockers and backpacks.

We also focused on the following issues when it came to the heavy backpack. As we talked through their answers, we provided tips they can implement: 
Heavy backpacks at school
1. What do you actually need in your backpack?
2. When you get off the bus or after davening, how do you decide what you will be putting in your bag?   Do you need to take everything with you? (We want them to come away with the idea that they should look at their schedules and see what they have either that morning OR 1st and 2nd period- as they have a break between 3rd and 4th. They should only put in the items they need for those periods. Anything they don’t need for those periods should be put in their lockers).
3. The times to go to my locker to remove things that I don’t need anymore and to put things in from my locker that I need are…

Heavy backpacks on the way home
4. Do you need to take EVERYTHING home?
5. How do you decide what you need to take home and what you can leave in your locker?
6. Do you ever take home things you don’t need? Why?
7. What should you be taking out when you get home and leaving at home?  What should you be doing with things you leave at home?

As we answered these questions together we focused upon a number of strategies. I want to highlight two:
  1. We had them take out whatever they use to write down their homework- either a planner or using their  myhomework app on their iPad- which they were shown how to use.  Instead of just writing what they have for homework, they need to write “materials needed” next to the item. If they use a planner:  If it’s helpful, they can use a different color pen to write the materials down so it stands out.  At the end of the day, all they need to do is look at that list to take home.
If they use the app- they can add this information where it says “additional info.” as they are recording the homework. They will have to click each homework assignment to check the items needed to come home. Unfortunately, some students do not write down their homework and rely on Parent Locker, as they wait to check their homework at home. This method clearly forces students to bring everything they own home with them or causes them to forget something in school.
  1. Every child received a shopping bag to keep in their lockers. As the day progresses, if they have an item that needs to be taken home, when they go to their lockers they are to put the item in that bag.  That way, when they go home they know all those items are to go home. Alternatively, we asked students to organize their lockers so items that need to go home are kept at the bottom of the locker and can just be “scooped up” at the end of the day.

In Bamidbar 11:14, Moshe turns to Hashem and says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” At times, our middle schoolers are carrying a load that they feel is “too heavy” for them- literally and figuratively. We hope that some of the organizational skills we teach them will help lighten that burden they feel. More importantly, we hope they realize that they need not carry the burden “alone”- the adults in their lives, parents and teachers, are there to support them. 

Advisory Update
Sixth Grade- Students began their Organization Unit. Half the students focused on backpacks this week, while half focused on lockers.
Seventh Grade- On Monday we were visited by the clinical director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center for the homeless. His presentation launched our next unity in Advisory – Operation Respect where students will be preparing and learning the skills necessary for our visit during Chanukah week. We will be focusing for the next month on the skills of empathy and the role we can play in supporting others.
Eighth Grade- As eighth graders gear up for their high school interviews, we focused on interview skills essential for life.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Teenagers Learn What They Live- From Whom?

Who do you think is your teen's most influential role model? In the spirit of the World Series, one might imagine it's athletes. Or perhaps media stars? (Today, that might include youtube stars etc. and not only television). Or maybe their peers? A Weekly Reader research study found that 67.7 percent of teens said their parents are the most influential role models in their lives. 40.6 percent said that teachers and coaches followed. Then, 40.4% said siblings were. Religious leaders, athletes and celebrities came in at 18.7%. There are numerous other studies, whose numbers vary somewhat, but overall parents come in first! (No pressure!!)

How do we fulfill this important role as role model? When I was child I remember there was poem hanging in my pediatrician, Dr. Neustein's, office. “Children Learn What They Live”- nothing more needs to be said:

Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

This poem was written by Dorothy Law Nolte who was a writer and therapist. This poem became a book as well. Years later she published another poem “Teenagers Learn What They Live- Parenting to Inspire Integrity & Independence.” I had never heard of it, until today.

Teeenagers Learn What They Live
If teenagers live with pressure, they learn to be stressed.
If teenagers live with failure, they learn to give up.
If teenagers live with rejection, they learn to feel lost.
If teenagers live with too many rules, they learn to get around them.
If teenagers live with too few rules, they learn to ignore the needs of others.
If teenagers live with broken promises, they learn to be disappointed.
If teenagers live with respect, they learn to honour others.
If teenagers live with trust, they learn to tell the truth.
If teenagers live with openness, they learn to discover themselves.
If teenagers live with natural consequences, they learn to be accountable.
If teenagers live with responsibility, they learn to be self-reliant.
If teenagers live with healthy habits, they learn to be kind to their bodies.
If teenagers live with support, they learn to feel good about themselves.
If teenagers live with creativity, they learn to share who they are.
If teenagers live with caring attention, they learn how to love.
If teenagers live with positive expectations, they learn to help build a better world.

As parents, we create the atmosphere in our homes where our teens live. We “learn them” each moment of each day, by the way we live our own lives. It's all about parenting by example. As adults, it often surprises us when we hear ourselves saying something to our teens and thinking, “Boy, I sound exactly like my mother!” As educators, when meeting a parent at parent-teacher conferences for the first time, before the parent introduces him/herself, we can often guess whose parent he/she is. The way our parents live seeps into our psyche, and often impacts on the way we live.
So, how do we fulfill this important role as role model? By simply living the way we want our children to live. This often means stopping our reactions in their tracks, reminding ourselves that we don't want our children to react that way. Often, it might mean forcing ourselves to get up and do something we are too tired to do, but we want our children to see us doing. Whether it's taking the time to daven on a busy day or cleaning up my own room when I have piles of work waiting for me- children learn what they live.

The sefer we are reading for parashat hashavua, Sefer Bereishit, is often called “Sefer Avot.” the book of our fathers. As, as the Ramban states, “Maaseh avot siman labanim,” “The deeds of the father is a sign for the children.” This sefer is full of events and stories that serve as models for us as their children.

There is, however, one other type of “role modeling” found in Sefer Bereishit, highlighted in the parasha we just read. The parasha starts with Hashem visiting Avraham. Why? He was recuperating from Brit Milah and Hashem was visiting the sick. This is one example given in the Gemara in Sotah 14a.
Why does it say (Deut. 13: 5): “One should walk after God”? Is it possible to walk after the Shekhinah? Is He not like a consuming fire (ibid., 4:24)? Rather, it means that one should imitate His ways. As G-d clothed Adam and Chava (Bereishit 3:21), so should we clothe the naked; as He visited the ailing (Rashi, Bereishit18: 1), so should we visit the sick; as He comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Rashi, Bereishit 25: 11), so should we comfort mourners; as He buried Moses (Devarim 34:6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead. “

This Gemara stresses the importance of imitatio Dei imitating Hashem. We are all children of Hashem. As parents, when we are faced with the stress of wondering how to be the role models for which are children are searching we have many sources to look to for inspiration. (Aside from reading lots of parenting books!) We have our our parents. We have our forefathers. And, we have our Father in Heaven. We have had first class teachers and need not worry about our qualifications.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade-
Students highlighted the important pieces of advice from last year's sixth graders that they think they will follow this year. They also had the chance to talk to their Advisors about how school is going for them.
Seventh Grade-
Frost Valley was incredible!

Eighth Grade-
Students focused on the qualities that them unique and the importance of focusing on those qualities and not trying to be like everyone else. Aside from impacting on their view towards life in general, it is also an important topic to consider before going on high school interviews and answering the important question “What makes you unique?”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back To The Future For Your Teen

This past Wednesday, October 21, 2015, was the day Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to in Back to the Future II in 1989. It was called Back To The Future Day. It seemed like any other day to me. Lots of rushing in the morning, going to work and then homework and bedtime. (With our amazing Open House in between!) But, the words, “Back To The Future” have more meaning as I consider two other important days in the past week- Sixth Grade and Eighth Grade Orientations.

As I looked out at the audience of parents  who were  joining us at the Sixth Grade Orientation or the Eighth Grade Orientation for the first time, I  saw  the same look  in their eyes, "Wasn't it just yesterday when we walked them into Pre-K orientation, tightly holding their hands- not wanting to let go?  Where did the time go?"   I often say that there are many similarities between toddlerhood and the years of early adolescence.  One commonality is that at these stages of life our children are asserting more independence and we are not always ready to let go.  Whether it is the first day on the bus in Kindergarten or  in sixth grade when we hand them off to nine teachers, whose names we can barely remember at first, we  worry how they will do without us.  For our eighth graders, there is nothing more worrisome than  "life after Yavneh."   We are leaving that which is comfortable to embark on an unfamiliar journey an unknown world. It is reminiscent of Avraham being commanded to leave all that is familiar to embark on an unknown journey. “ לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ"Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Bereishit 12:1) How do we as parents let go and tell our children “lech lecha”- venture out on your own? How do we make sure they end up in the “right land”?

Dr. Jim Taylor states that there are two types of children- contingent and independent children. Contingent children depend on others for how they feel about themselves. They won't achieve without incentives. They depend on others for happiness. They often have no limits set for them. They tend to be poor decision makers, as parents never have discussions with them about what is best for them. Independent children, on the other hand, are intrinsically motivated. Their parents use incentives and rewards sparingly and appropriately. They have a “collaborative” relationship with their parents, rather than a “controlled” one. Independent children are good decision makers, as their opinions have always been valued. They make decisions with the support and guidance of their parents.

According to Taylor, how do we raise independent and not contingent children? Taylor stresses the importance of giving them responsibilities- by literally listing them. And, of course, there needs to be consequences for not fulfilling one's responsibilities. This sends them the messages that you are confident in their capabilities. They have control over their lives. Another important element is providing guidance and then giving them the freedom to make their own decisions.

Even if we raise “independent” teens, how do we know that they will do the right thing if we let go? On a most basic level, “How will he do his homework if I don't sit next to him each evening?” or “How can I send him off to camp knowing he'll make good decisions?”

Back to the future is the answer. In order to have a strong, and safe future, our teens need to be able to draw from their past- to go back. For those who have been reading my column for some time, you will recognize that this is my opportunity to bring up my favorite Gemara regarding Yoseph, Yaakov and parenting. When Yoseph was in the house of Potiphar, far from home and his family, he faced the difficult situation of the wife of Potiphar. The Gemara in Sotah 36b describes, “It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me. And she caught him by his garment, saying etc. At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and yours amongst theirs; is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?' Immediately his bow abode in strength.”

Clearly Yoseph's father was far away in Canaan- how could he have seen the image of his father Yaakov in the window? That image of Yaakov that he saw was the voice in his head. Over and over he had heard his father say, “Good boys don't act that way. In our family, our values are...” And, of course, like any teenager, (Yoseph was just 17 when he went to Egypt), he said to his dad, “I know, I know- why do you keep on telling me the same thing?!” And, yet, Yaakov continued sending those messages. That is why, when faced with challenge to his morality, he heard that voice in his head.
So, when we have our frequent “talks” with our children they say to us, “I know, I know- enough already!” And, yet when they are faced with challenge, whether peer pressure to do the wrong thing or the temptation to engage in any at-risk behavior, or even the temptation to skip their homework, they will hear our voices in their head, and practically see our images before them reminding them of what they should do. They will always go back to what we told them.

In essence, even though Avraham left his birthplace, his son Yaakov returns there following the command of Hashem, “Return to your country, and to your family...” Yaakov was going back to his future. That is what we hope for our children. We want them to dig deep back into all the conversations relaying values we have had with them and the modeling we have lived for them. Only then will their independent futures lead them on a journey to the “land that we have shown them.”

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade:
Through role-playing they continued learning of the skills of conversation do's and don'ts.

Seventh Grade:
Students learned about the importance of using “I” statements and not “You” statements in effective communication and teamwork.

Eighth Grade:

How to choose a high school, was the topic of this week's session. Students discussed what they are looking for in a high school and what they think they need for their own growth. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Peer Pressure- Essential For Your Teen's Success In Life

            Peer pressure. We dare not even utter those words in the middle school years.  We know that peer pressure peaks during this age.  In this week's parasha Noach is held up as an example of he who resisted peer pressure, "Tamim haya b'dorotav" “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations” (Bereishit 6:9). In his generations? Why are those words added?  Despite the evil all around him, he was able to maintain his ability to do the right thing.  How?  Even at his birth, when his parents named him they said, “This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” Noach was going to be special and be a comfort among all the evil.  Perhaps this symbolized that it was the influence of his parents which gave him the strength to resist.

 Or, as we know, the difference between Avraham and Noach was that Avraham sought out  to interact with others by spreading belief in G-d. In contrast, Noach primarily kept to himself.  That is one solution to peer pressure- just stay away from peers and keep to yourself.  Most teens (and parents of teens) would not want that way of life, as we know one's social life is essential at this stage of life.  

        What is the solution?  I maintain that perhaps we want our children to be more like Avraham than Noach- to surround oneself with peer pressure and use it for their self-development.  PEER PRESSURE IS GOOD.  (Shhh- don't tell anyone!)

        In the most basic and more obvious manner, we can use peer pressure and the intense social influence felt to encourage positive and appropriate behaviors. Teachers use positive peer pressure all the time to influence students, encouraging them to imitate the most studious and conscientious students. We call this in Hebrew, “Kinat sofrim” -envy of scholars. We want our children to aspire to imitate the positive behavior around them. That is why we send them to schools and camps where we know they will be surrounded by positive peer pressure.

  But, not only is positive peer pressure good for you. Peer pressure to do the wrong thing, may actually be good for you as well. In fact, studies indicate that teens who feel more of that peer pressure to do the wrong thing actually succeed better in life.  Professor Joe Allen, of University of Virginia, studied seventh graders and followed them every year for the next ten years.  He found that the ones who felt more peer pressure had "higher quality relationships with friends, parents and romantic partners."  He actually found that their need to fit in early adolescence later on manifested itself in the willingness to accommodate.  "The self-conscious kid who spent seventh grade convinced that everyone was watching her learned to be attuned to subtle changes in others' moods.  Years down the road, the heightened sensitivity led to empathy and social adeptness."  

        Dr.  Allen then demonstrated that the students who did not feel much peer pressure in seventh grade, within five years had a lower GPA.  Those children were also less engaged socially and academically.  Unmotivated by what those around them thought, these seventh graders also did not care much about what their parents and society wanted them to do.  Peers' influence can be an asset.  Peer pressure pulls students to do well in school, to not act childish and to become involved in athletics- all good things.  "We think of susceptibility to peer pressure as only a danger, but, really, it's out of peer pressure that boys learn to take showers and not come to school smelly," adds Dr. Allen.  

         The most important aspect of Dr. Allen's study was that the key is not pushing back against peer pressure by severing contact.  The key is maintaining autonomy when experiencing the pressure.  How do teens learn to resist the peer pressure of their friends? They learn this from their relationship with their parents.  Parents who raise their children to be connected to them and autonomous at the same time.  By allowing our teens to voice their opinions when they disagree- in a respectful way- they learn the skill of standing up for themselves.  The parent is ultimately in charge, but the child learns that he/she need not always give in without standing up for what he/she believes in.  "The kids who are really pushy and angry with their parents, they're still more hostile to their friends ten years later.  The kids who learn to negotiate with their parents- not just badger them, but truly negotiate- they could use those tactics with their peers and be effective at it.  So, when their friends say, 'Let's go back to the park and drink,' he suggests, 'How about we not...'" and provides a better suggestion.

It now makes sense that not all of our avot and imahot grew up in houses of tzaddikim. There is something about being exposed to peer pressure and resisting it that makes a person a leader and even more attached to their beliefs in G-d. I am not advocating that we send our children to live in homes of idol worshipers, as Avraham grew up. Nor, should we allow them to hang out with friends who are negative influences on them. We need to, however, raise them with the realistic understanding that they will face difficult peer pressure, and provide them with the skills they need to resist.

Advisory Update

Sixth Grade- This week they focused on the skills needed to have a good group discussion- essential for Advisory class and life!
Seventh Grade- They began their unit which prepares them with the skills they need for Frost Valley. This week, they looked at the skills needed for teamwork and the importance of communication skills.

Eighth Grade- Students discussed some good testing taking skills in light of their upcoming ACT- Aspire test.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"How Was School Today?" Asking The Right Questions And Getting The Right Answers From Your Teen

This past Shabbat we read parashat Bereishit where Hashem models for us the parenting technique of questioning to elicit information.  First, with Adam Harishon He says, in Bereishit 3:9 “And the Lord God called to Adam, and said to him, Where are you?” "Ayeka?"  .  He clearly knows where Adam is.  Then He asks in pasuk 11, "And He said, Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree, which I commanded you that you should not eat?” Hashem clearly knows that Adam did eat,  and, yet, Hashem still asks him questions. Then with Kayin Hashem also asks a number of questions. First in 4:6, “And the Lord said to Cain, Why are you angry? And why is your countenance fallen?” Hashem knew exactly why Kayin was upset. And, then after he kills his brother, Hashem asks Kayin in pasuk 9, “And the Lord said to Cain, Where is Abel your brother?" Hashem knew exactly where Hevel was and what Kayin had done to him, and yet He still asks.  And, even after Kayin refuses to admit Hashem asks him another question in pasuk 10, “And He said, What have you done?”

On the most basic level, Hashem wanted to give them the opportunity to "fess up" and admit their wrongdoing.  Clearly, neither rises to the occasion.  As parents, it does model for us the importance of rather than running to accuse, to give the child the chance to express what he thinks he did wrong and why he did it.  The moment we enter a situation with accusations, teens shut down and are not willing to cooperate. When we as parents engage in a conversation where we do not give them the chance to offer an explanation or admission, we send the message that we aren't really interested in what they have to say, so they might as well shut down.  Yes, Hashem was clearly angry as Adam violated the only commandment he had, and Kayin committed the first murder.  He knew exactly what it is like to have your child openly disobey and then even lie about it.  However, Hashem was able to restrain His understandable anger to send the message to His "children" that they can repair what they have done if they are honest and upfront.  And, in fact, Hashem says directly to Kayin, “If you do well, shall you not be accepted?” You can do better and improve.

When children are young, they spend the day asking questions of us, “Why is the sky blue?” “How does electricity work?” As they get older, they stop asking us questions, and seek answers from the experts... their friends and the internet. But, there are so many questions that we still need to ask them.

"How was your day?"  we ask as our children get off the bus at the end of the day. “What happened at the party?” The only way we can get information is by asking, as they don't  offer details in a forthcoming way and as they get older, we get increasingly less and less information. "Fine," "Okay" or sometimes "Horrible" are the more standard responses.   How do we get more from our teens? 

There are some ground rules:

  1. Make it clear that you value what they have to say. There's no point in their sharing if you don't value their opinions. Make it a practice to ask their opinions.
  2. Comment on things they do right, not just on what they do wrong!
  3. Begin with listening. Don't comment at first. Just listen. All distractions away.
  4. Ask questions that help them explore further what they think, rather than stating what you think.
  5. Make sure to be available the times of day that your child is most “available” for chatting. (For mine, it's always when I'm exhausted and have no patience left! But, I've learned to smile through it and keep my eyes open!)
  6. Ask open-ended questions instead of yes or no questions.
  7. Be specific. Instead of “Did you like school today?” ask “What was the best thing you did today?”  
In an article “28 Ways To Ask Your Teen 'How Was School Today?' Without Asking Them 'How Was School Today?” Liz Evans presents some creative ways of eliciting information from your teen. Some might fit your teen:

1. Where in the school do you hang out the most? (Like a particular hall, classroom, parking lot, etc.) Where in the school do you never hang out?
2. What would your school be better with? What would your school be better without?
3. If you were a teacher, what class would you teach? Which class would be the worst to teach? Why?
4. What was the coolest (saddest, funniest, scariest) thing that you saw today?
5. Tell me one thing that you learned today.
6. If your day at school today was a movie, what movie would it be?
7. Besides walking to their next classes, what else do people do in the halls in between classes?
8. Who do you think you could be nicer to?
9. Which is your easiest class? Which is your hardest class? OR Which class are you learning the most in? Which class are you learning the least in?
10. If they played music in the halls at school, what would everyone want them to play over the loudspeaker?
11. If you could read minds, which teacher's mind would you read? Which classmate's mind would you read? Whose mind would you NOT want to read?
12. If today had a theme song, what would it be?
13. Which class has your favorite group of students in it? Which class has the worst group of students?
14. What do you think you should do more of at school? What do you think you should do less of?
15. What are the top three (or five) things that you hear people say in the halls?
16. What do you think the most important part of school is?
17. Tell me one question that you had today, even if it wasn't answered... actually, especially if it wasn't answered...
18. Which class has the most cute boys/girls in it?
19. If an alien spaceship landed at your school, who would you like them to beam aboard and take back to their home planet?
20. Who did you help today? Who helped you today?
21. If you could be invisible for the day at school, what would you do?
22. What part of the day do you look forward to? What part of the day do you dread?
23. What would you change about school lunch?
24. Which classmate is most likely to be arrested, made president, become a millionaire, be in movies, let loose a flock of wild chickens in the library, etc.?
25. If you had to go to only one class every day, which class would it be?
26. Tell me one thing you read at school today.
27. If your day at school was an emoticon, which one would it be?
  1. What do you think your teachers talked about in the faculty room today after school?
Most importantly, we can never give up asking questions, even though they may not answer in these middle school years. We thereby send the message that we are always there and ready for them and waiting for when they are ready to answer.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade-
Sixth graders began Advisory this week. They got to know each other and their Advisors, beginning to form cohesive groups.

Seventh Grade-
Seventh graders were introduced to the “mission” of seventh grade Advisory “Prepare Yourself To Change The World.” They discussed how even they as teens can a make a difference in the world around them.

Eighth Grade-

Eighth graders were introduced to the theme of this year's Advisory- “Preparing For Life After Yavneh” - skills they will need to succeed in high school and life beyond. They viewed interviews of graduates who expressed some of the challenges of 8th grade and applying to high school.