"All of our children are in crisis," proclaimed relationship guru Rabbi Shmuley Boteach last week during a local lecture.
Whether his audience wanted to hear it or not, he added, he would be presenting a "painful message" — that it's not a health crisis American kids suffer from, or the sex, drugs or teen pregnancy usually referred to as the major problems facing youth.
"The crisis," he continued, "is an absence of inspiration. Our children are utterly uninspired. We don't know how to make them come alive."
Simply put, Boteach argued that America's kids — Jewish children included — are bored.
About 400 people had gathered in the main sanctuary of Adath Israel in Merion Station on May 20 to hear the pulpit-rabbi-turned-family-and-relationship-expert deliver a lecture on some somber themes, dotted, as is his style, with humor. His presentation was sponsored by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education.
The bio of Rabbi Shmuley, as he's known to fans, speaks for itself: He is the best-selling author of more a dozen books on various topics, has a syndicated column, has been the host of the cable-television series Shalom in the Home and hosts an XM radio show. And with eight children of his own, he probably knows a thing or two about parenting.
It's hard for parents to talk to American teens in today's world, said Boteach: Young people have their iPods on nonstop and their vocabulary often consists mainly of "huh?"
"Americans talk about Britney [Spears] not wearing underpants," stated Boteach. "Is this what George Washington crossed the Delaware for?"
Combine this preoccupation with the fact that many teens have latched on to the wrong heroes, and it's no wonder parents have their work cut out for them, explained the Orthodox rabbi. A child's heroes should be his or her parents, but instead, many look up to famous people who call women by the foulest of names.
What went wrong, he said, is that parents simply don't inspire their teens the way stars do.
"We have become the enemy," he added. "We have pushed our children away by giving them all the wrong values."
Beyond the Great Divide
So how can parents get beyond this divide?
Boteach highlighted several areas discussed in his books — chiefly, 10 Conversations You Need to Have With Your Children — that parents can't seem to handle and that, through mishandling, can be damaging to their children. He also offered ways to overcome these obstacles so that parents can bond with their teens.
The first point, he stressed, was that the world has conditioned parents to teach children to have a career rather than "a calling." After parents instill in their kids the importance of getting into the best college possible, children are no longer people but "performance machines," he said. The message they get from parents is that love has to be earned, and that nothing they do will ever be good enough.
To put it another way, the world will only love them if they succeed, and nothing else matters except for fame and a career.
"All we tell them is you better succeed, or I won't love you," he said. Parents don't let their kids "just be."
A calling, he explained, is what God gives each of us — a contribution to make to society. Boteach encouraged audience members to help their children find their own personal calling.
The rabbi also advised his audience to encourage and develop their children's curiosity, instead of just stressing the importance of getting good grades. After all, he pointed out, Bill Gates is a college dropout, and Abraham Lincoln had minimal schooling.
Another key component he stressed was to stop asking children what they want to do and ask instead who they want to be. In life, you can only be good or bad, he stated, and "everyone wants to be good."
He added that while friendships are good to have, family's needed more. A family should be together, he said, and, in Judaism, there is a component built right in for together time: Shabbat dinner.
To have friends, he continued, you need to fit in, and that equals peer pressure and a loss of individuality. But it is your family who loves you unconditionally. "Give your kids love," he emphasized, "rather than attention."