Dear Lauren,

I'm a mother of two teens, ages 11 and 14, and lately I'm so desperate to join a weekly parenting group, because things constantly come up and I'm always double-guessing if I handled situations the best way possible. For example: I find my kids do almost nothing around the house for chores: do I ignore? Or implement something? I understand my 14-year-old is developing her own identity, but does that mean I should ignore the constant criticism and name-calling she offers freely to everyone in sight? And food! She drives me crazy to get her candy for studying, and complains that I don't have normal food because I won't buy fast food dinners every night. Help! Is this a phase she'll outgrow? Or do I need to address it?

Lauren Roth's Answer

I chose this question for this week’s column for all you teenagers out there to help you and your parents get along better. I’m going to try and write this answer in a way that will be helpful for all you teen readers, and for all you parents of teens reading this, too.

The main problem I see, in my practice and when I do parenting workshops, is parents and teenagers not feeling respected by each other. It is absolutely a Torah obligation for children to respect their parents. It is also an absolute Torah obligation for every single person to respect every single other person on this planet. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler says in Strive for Truth, “We are obligated to respect every person simply because he or she is a person.” That means that children of any age should feel respected by their parents, and parents should feel respected by their children.

Now, teens, before you get too excited, this does not mean that Jewish families have to be democracies. Parents are in charge, and they get to make the rules, in order to keep you safe and growing properly and learning what you’re supposed to learn in life. But what this does mean is that everyone in every family should feel respected by his or her family members. And every person in every family should try to ensure that his or her family members feel respected by them. (Please note: I am NOT talking about abusive situations. If, say, a parent is emotionally abusing a child, that child will never earn the respect of that parent, and it is useless to try. Abusive situations are wholly different and normal rules don’t apply. See my previous article on emotional abuse.)

In answer to all of your questions above, I say: talk to your teenagers. Have a discussion with them. Talk to them like you would talk to one of your friends with whom you were having a disagreement. Respectfully ask them their opinion, and their reasons behind their opinion. Respectfully tell them your opinion, and the reasons behind your opinion.

And teens, listen to your parents’ questions, and answer them politely and respectfully. Ask your parents what their opinions are. Listen respectfully to their answers.

If anyone devolves into screaming, yelling, put-downs, or even subtle meanness, the person on the receiving end of the distasteful behavior should gently say, “You know, it really hurts my feelings when you say that/when you talk to me like that. We love each other, I know. Let’s have a respectful conversation, where we both listen and we both feel heard.”

To address one of your questions directly, let’s say your daughter says “Ugh! Broccoli for dinner again?! Why can’t you buy burgers and fries sometimes like normal mothers?” That would be your cue to first validate and empathize, so that your daughter feels respected, then invite a conversation to work out a solution, then gently remind her that there might be a better way to say what she wants to say.

It would go something like this: “Oy! I know you don’t like broccoli! I feel so bad that you don’t like dinner. Let’s discuss the things you do like so that I can make sure to have healthful options you enjoy each night. By the way, when you speak to me, you must do so respectfully. You are not permitted to insult your parent. I would have listened to you just as well – maybe even more! – if you had said, ‘Mom, I really don’t like broccoli. Can we discuss what I like and come to some kind of compromise on the dinner choices?’”

In terms of chores, every teen knows, deep down, that having some responsibility for taking care of the house and/or family is good for them. Sure, none of us wants to do chores, but everyone would do chores willingly IF they felt respected. (Right, teens?!) So the discussion about chores with your teen could go something like this: “Peter, here is a list of the jobs that need to be done each day. I’ve already marked the ones I’m going to do. Would you like to mark the ones you’d be willing to do? Thank you so much for helping – I’m so proud of how we all work together to keep this household running!” Proactive, sincere, honest appreciation goes a long way; it demonstrates your respect for the other person, and they are much more likely to willingly help you. Of course, proactive, sincere, honest appreciation is what I’m talking about – not insincere, wheedling, manipulative flattery!

Lastly, with regard to your joining a parenting group, I and your teenagers heartily approve of that idea. Parenting groups help us because they ensure that we are thinking about our parenting. If we’re just blindly going down a parenting path, not noticing the impact our actions and behaviors and comments are having on our kids, we could be hurting them left, right, and center, and they will not feel respected. But if we join a group that helps us to sit and think about the impact of our actions on our kids, we will probably become more aware, more gentle, more empathic parents.

Parenting groups are also fertile breeding grounds for innovative ideas; other parents might have handled a situation in a creative way you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Also, parenting groups help to reduce the pressure you feel to be a perfect parent. When you hear about other parents’ failures, it makes you remember that no mother or father or daughter or son is perfect. And that reduction of perfectionist expectations will help everyone.

If I had to condense the meaning of “being respectful” into one sentence, it would be this: “being respectful” means thinking about and caring about the thoughts and feelings of the other person, and not just about your own, and transmitting those thoughts and caring attitudes to the other person, so they know about your regard for him or her.

I could write for hours on this question; all the permutations and situations and possibilities and scenarios and questions and answers…. But I trust I’ve given you enough food for thought to start a lively, respectful interaction in your home with your teenaged kids.

I invite teens to comment below, to add their own great ideas and helpful suggestions for this mother.