The last time that you cancelled a credit card, you probably received a phone call from a representative of the company within a week or so. The individual asked you why you took your business elsewhere and if there is anything he/she can do to encourage you to reconsider your decision to sever your ties with their company. This phone call is part of an overall ‘exit interview’ strategy, which serves a very important function in the effective execution of a company’s business plan. After all, if you decided to cancel your credit card due to poor customer service, excessive fees, or steep interest rates, it is safe to assume that many others will follow your lead.
Well, over the past twenty years, I conducted hundreds of terribly painful ‘exit interviews’ with children and adults who have abandoned Yiddishkeit. I can tell you in no uncertain terms what it is that they wanted – and why they took their business elsewhere. They were looking for respect and understanding. Acceptance. Safe and nurturing home lives. Hands-on parents who offer unconditional love along with their guidance. Caring educators who dealt with their admitted misdeeds gently and privately (firmly was OK). The ability to be a bit different without being labeled or judged. More time for hobbies and more recreational opportunities.
With this in mind, imagine that you live in a community where a few boys and girls have strayed from the path of Torah and engaged in at-risk behaviors (read: all communities). Parents and educators grow increasingly apprehensive and look for solutions. The question on everyone’s mind is how to address the concern that this may happen to their child(ren).
I would think that the frightened parents in the community ought to shorten the hours that their children are in school, offer more extra-curricular activities, clamor for more tolerance, invest in the educators of their children, and boycott the schools that dismiss children for misdeeds. The community leaders would do well to meet with the mental-health professionals and those who deal with the ‘at-risk’ teen population, perhaps even with the troubled kids themselves, and listen – really listen – to their advice. I would love to tell you that this is happening. It pains me to report that this is usually not the case. Those of us who deal with at-risk kids are consulted in firefighter mode by desperate parents and educators – but little time and energy is being spent in fire prevention. They are asking us what to do with the at-risk kids, but not what we think should be done for all our children.
In many communities, I’m sad to report, exactly the opposite is happening. School hours are getting longer and longer. Kids have less time and opportunity to engage in desperately needed recreational activities. In fact, in some communities, normal sports activities are frowned upon or outright banned – sometimes for children above the age of ten years old!! Schools that dismiss children are valued and pursued. Acceptance criterion for high schools is getting increasingly more challenging. On many occasions, I have clearly stated that in today’s climate I would probably not have been accepted to any ‘normal’ high school when I graduated eighth grade thirty-three years ago!!
Most peculiar is the reaction of parents who respond to their fears by striving mightily to place their children in the most rigorous programs. The thinking is that their children will be safe there, as the ‘chevrah’ will be better and the ‘at-risk’ children will be excluded from those elite schools. However, this thinking is terribly flawed. For there is no guarantee that their child – or one of their children some time in the future of their family life – will not be one of those children who will need some adjustment, tolerance, or understanding. So, in effect, the parents are raising the bar – and the ante of this very high-stakes gamble – by opting to send their child to a program that purports to produce a ‘metzuyan’ or ‘mitzuyenes’ (exemplary children). But at the same time, they are greatly increasing the odds that their child may find the train running away from him or her. And, in all my years of dealing with the at-risk teen population, I have not noticed that the elitist schools have any lower percentage of kids abandoning Yiddishkeit. All the more so if you include those who were asked to “find another school,” midway in their school experience.
I will close this column by quoting the words of my very wise grandmother a’h. She often would remark that, “ales mit a t’si toig nisht.” Loosely translated, that means that anything overdone is bound to backfire.
Her grandson’s advice mirrors that thought. If I may use a baseball analogy, when raising your children, don’t swing for the fences**. Just try to make contact and get on base. Trust me, you will score more runs that way. Keep in mind that most mighty swings result in strikeouts.
And, l’man Hashem, keep your eye on the ball.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
** This is not by any means to suggest that we lower our standards or abandon our quest for excellence. More on this in future columns.
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