How do I make my son's approaching bar mitzvah as much about his transition to adulthood as about the party?
We've spent every summer for the past decade in eastern Africa, and learned from the Maasai traditional peoples. Teenaged Maasai boys endure a series of physical trials that hone their mental strength in preparation for the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood in the Mara. In their final test, they are sent to fend for themselves in the wilderness until they return having killed a lion.
Thankfully fire-ant stings and skin burned with hot embers are not prerequisites for adult membership in North American society. But today's youth could benefit from opportunities to prove to themselves, their parents and the world that they are capable of responsibility and achievement.
Formalized transition rituals like bar mitzvahs are major milestones in a child's life – and if the child has experience with agency and responsibility, he or she may be more likely to appreciate its deeper meaning.
For instance, Josh Arbess of Toronto was allowed to circulate a petition in Grade 4 to enable fifth-graders to run for student council, and he has actively participated in volunteerism projects ever since.
The 12-year-old enjoys a party, but he wanted his upcoming bar mitzvah to reflect the significance of the occasion – literally. So Josh has invited his family and friends to help him perform a "mitzvah" – a good deed – by assembling school supplies and raising funds for the House of Hope orphanage near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Josh's unconventional approach to celebrating this big moment in his life exhibits the kind of generosity and leadership expected of an adult in his Jewish community.
Anthropologist and psychologist Mary Pipher argues that sex, drugs and alcohol have emerged as means of asserting independence in the absence of more positive ways to acknowledge evolving maturity. The author of Reviving Ophelia advocates incorporating more "toasts, celebrations and markers for teens that tell them, 'You are growing up and we're proud of you.'"
David Baum, a New Hampshire-based psychologist who specializes in life transitions, explains that teens crave responsibility but are treated like "adults-in-waiting" who are on the receiving end of everything: homework from teachers, instructions from parents and pressure from peers. They need to have agency over their own lives, and responsibilities that are challenging and meaningful.
The key as parents is to make room for your kids to take on responsibility and to struggle with the challenges. Encourage them to explore the unknown, to take on difficult projects and to confront what they fear: speaking in public, trying out for the team, or standing up for what they believe.
Begin at an early age: Start transferring small bits of responsibility to youngsters, such as household chores or daily decision-making such as choosing the family activity for a Saturday, to demonstrate trust and allow them to think and achieve on their own.
If you're an animal-loving family, as kids grow older (into their 'tweens), make them responsible for a small pet's care, in exchange for the right to own one. This could start out with relatively simple-to-mind fish and, over time, move up through a gerbil-type responsibility long before graduating to the commitment inherent in caring for a dog or cat.
Consider letting your kids plan and lead a family outing or vacation, or be wholly responsible for preparing the family meal once a week with the incentive of choosing to prepare what to eat. Later will come challenges such as getting a job to earn pocket money, volunteering overseas or taking a gap year between high school and university.
Be around when they fail, help them process the lessons and celebrate when they succeed – for the smallest things as well as the big things. Your mature, confident adult child will have a better sense of where they fit in the world, and they will thank you (eventually) for it.