I really didn’t think this text was going to resonate but I tried it anyway. The topic was risk-taking behavior – and the parents were getting more and more anxious with each passing minute, as they imagined their ‘tweens “doing what they did as teenagers,” testing the limits either with alcohol, drugs or sex. While no one was actively worried about these issues yet, each parent around that table knew it was just a matter of time. And they had no clue how they wanted to react. One parent even added a 4th risky behavior –when she swore (with a half grin) she wasn’t gong to allow her daughter to drive, ever! They all agreed that the world is a scarier place today than it was when they were kids (does every generation think that?). They felt anxious that they might not be able to protect their children – who still felt like children, even though they were on the cusp of adolescence.
So, I introduced the first text in our sourcebook, “Parenting Your ‘Tween Through a Jewish Lens” – a text by Reb Nachman that I truly wasn’t sure would resonate in this context: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” The text was familiar to many but never before applied to this task of parenting ‘tweens in the face of danger. And despite their visceral emotions, what stood out for these parents was the second half of the text: “and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” That became our conversation. Holding on to this paradox of parenting being so incredibly scary and dangerous (a really narrow bridge you could fall off of and die) and at the same time, being nothing to fear (that it’s really important to not be afraid!) was liberating. Parents shared their experience with this paradox in their own lives and as parents.
I suggested that we make this paradox more physical by putting our hands out in front of us - that our right hand is the hand of fear (the narrow bridge) and our left hand, the hand of confidence (don’t be afraid) and notice that our bodies, our healthy selves are in the middle. As parents we have the capacity to determine which hand to favor in any given situation. When your 13-year-old daughter stops eating and you find some kind of pills in her drawer – it’s appropriate to be scared and worried and seek help. But when you pick up your 15-year-old son from a party and he reeks of alcohol, you needn’t panic that he’s becoming an alcoholic and won’t get into college. How you respond (probably wait until the next day) to keep both communication and the relationship open will be more possible and constructive by favoring your “left hand over your right”. While many of us might be naturally “right handed” especially when it comes to parenting, this text comes to tell us we have choices in how we react. That is Reb Nachman’s gift.
Judy Elkin is a long-time Jewish educator and a certified personal and professional coach, working with individuals, couples and professional teams. As a Jewish educator, she has worked with adolescents, parents, parent educators, teachers and graduate students, and was the founding director of Ramah Family Camp.