Cultivating Jewish Values in Our Tweens and Teens: A Conversation with Sabrina Burger



In her Hebrew College course, “Parenting Your Tween Through a Jewish Lens,” psychotherapist Sabrina Burger teaches parents how to effectively guide their children through a time filled with changes and challenges. A mother to four tweens and teens, Sabrina also lives and breathes the course every day. In our conversation, Sabrina shared how we can help our older kids become caring individuals with strong Jewish identities.

How can we guide our tweens and teens to be present and mindful?

With phones, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram constantly in their lives, encouraging our kids to be mindful can be challenging. When our kids are younger, we can restrict their technology usage. As parents, we can try to be mindful of our own habits, which can help our children develop good habits, too. Be sure to notice when your kids act well and acknowledge them for it. As a mother, I am committed to trusting my kids and to letting them know that I trust them. So, when my kids listen to music that I don’t think sends positive messages, I won’t forgive the music, but I’ll engage in conversation with them. I’ll let them know, “I trust you and I hope you know how to filter what you’re hearing.” Just as parents are supposed to be guardians for our kids’ bodies, we also need to protect their souls.

How can we cultivate Jewish identity in our teens and tweens?

So much of what we do to foster a love of Judaism in our kids is not explicit. Lecturing them about what we want them to do is not effective. Instead, show them that you are happy doing mitzvot. Show them that there’s vitality in your Jewish practice, whether that means buying flowers for Shabbat or baking challah. Seeing how Judaism positively affects you will positively impact their relationship with Judaism. I also think that it’s important—if possible—to send our kids to Jewish summer camp and to Israel. They’re definitely financial sacrifices, but Israel, in particular, offers a unique access to experiencing Judaism.

How can we foster an ethic of caring in our children?

Some children are givers, while others are more self-preserving. As parents, we need to accept our kids for who they are. If you have kids who don’t give naturally, don’t make them feel bad about their nature. Love them as they are and, as they learn to accept themselves, they’ll learn how to give.

One of my children has a friend who has Down syndrome. His mother asked my son if he could help him cross the street. When my kid had a hard time committing, I wanted to tell him, “Just be a mensch.” But I didn’t want to give him a guilt trip. So, instead, I asked, “Well, what would you feel comfortable committing to? Once a week?” So, he chose one day a week to help his friend cross the street and he worked out the details with his friend’s mom. A few days later, my son told me that he wanted to join a club at school, where he could become a madrich (counselor) for children with special needs. I was so glad that I’d taken a step back and enabled my son to figure out how to give. Instead of feeling guilty, he felt good.

What are ways that we can effectively communicate with our tweens and teens?

Join them in the things that they enjoy. Play with them when they’re little, and when they’re older, read with them and play video games with them, even if the video games bore you. Join them for the TV shows they like and talk to them about whatever interests them. When they come to you with a “Can I…” question, try answering, “Let’s talk about it” instead of, “Yes” or “No.” This will teach them that they can talk to you and to the other people in their life. Talk less and listen more. And pray!

How can we effectively parent our kids through challenging times?

Life is full of challenges and it’s important not to avoid them, but to ride the wave instead. If my kids are having a hard time, I try not to fix things for them. I let them know that while I can’t make their challenges go away, I can share with them what helps me during difficult times. Then, I encourage them to find out what gives them strength. I also think that it’s important to encourage our children to have meaningful relationships with adults who are not their parents, like aunts, uncles, teachers, and family friends. Our kids don’t always want to tell us everything because we’re their parents, but they may turn to other trusted adults for support. We also need to allow our kids to make mistakes because that is how they learn.

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