Monday, April 26, 2010

What I learned from a High School program at the RCA Convention

My primary reasons for attending this year's RCA Convention were that I was asked to present a session, and that I wanted to re-connect with friends. This morning, though, I gained a lesson I find significantly more valuable.

I attended a session this morning in which high school seniors from the New York area (some from Jewish schools, some not) answered questions about what it’s like to be a person and a Jew in high school today. They talked about drugs and alcohol and sexual activity, as well as relationships with their rabbis, with their parents, and with Judaism.

Most of what was said was not particularly novel [although I did learn that – contrary to what I had thought – Facebook and Twitter have not yet fallen out of fashion]. The yitzrim are the same, and the prevalence of teen involvement in those yitzrim remains high. No novelties there, no Generation Gap there.

But I did learn something that was new to me: I found the current Generation Gap. The difference between today’s eighteen year old and the eighteen year old of even ten years ago is Control. Access. Power. And it all comes down to Communication.

The same Communication Revolution that has empowered remote populations, economically disadvantaged populations and government-repressed populations has also empowered teenagers.

The result: Today's high schooler has far more independent power than we did as high schoolers, and they know it.

Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago when I was in high school, we had no cell phones, no personal email, no ability to text. The result was that nearly all communication took place within a zone that our parents could monitor.

Friends called the home phone to talk, and our parents answered; the only way to communicate in private was by mail, and who was going to write a letter? Sure, we could talk in school, but with teachers present and the fear of supervision, we were very limited.

Today, teens can text each other, send pictures to each other, call each other on cell phones, hold a video chat, and all directly; it’s easy to talk and make plans and arrange whatever they choose.

I never really thought about the impact of all of that that independent communication before, but it’s so clear to me now.

Separately, I learned something else: As part of the program, the students discussed the role of a Rabbi. One person present commented that Rabbis are more benign than parents, because the Rabbi (assuming confidentiality) is not able to punish them. He can only help.

The conversation really made me miss the shul rabbinate. I was never the best at getting close to high schoolers, in no small part because of the reflex reaction of “I’m not cool enough” triggered by being near adolescents. But it was always something I wanted to do better, and I miss not having done more. I can do it somewhat in my current position, but one day, one day…


  1. Parents of today have to be vigilant in "knowing" their children.
    If they are permitting their children ownership of these items - they should be familiar with the content of their children's ipods and they should have access to text histories. (I am sorry to say that it is the more Chareidi parents who allow these devices that are the most clueless. I myself have struggled with the dilemma as to whether or not it was my resposibility to "clue them in" to their own children....)
    This is a not a time for parents to be uneducated about technology or lazy about parental control and involvement.
    It is not fair to one's children to love them less.

  2. Great and important posting.
    What's just as interesting is that some parents would plotz if they read/saw what their teens put of Facebook...

    Do you have any advice for those who are adults and interact with today's teens.

  3. Being slightly closer to High School, I think that you can actually do it much better in your current position.

    You can offer the kids something that they've never seen before (i.e. Torah) and they might give you a chance (a few seconds before they make up their mind). What kind of HS kid hangs out with his shul rabbi? That doesn't even get off the ground.

    Have you connected with Rafi Lipner and his house there yet? It's kids a little older than HS, but probably the same types of issues.

  4. G6-
    Very true. If we don't think our children are ready for this power, handing it to them is criminally irresponsible.

    I wish I did; I'm looking for advice myself.

    True that there's more I can do now, although I do think HS kids would be open to the right approach from the shul rabbi.
    Re: Rafi and House - Yes, we've connected, although we don't yet have a specific plan. Thanks for the thought.

  5. RH -
    You got me thinking about parental and "village" responsibility in these most challenging times.
    I linked you in my most recent post.
    I'm curious what you think....

  6. A tiny part of the picture, but one many teens don't seem to get, is that other people will gain access to their online personalities. I know of two girls turned down by seminaries for the content and connections of their Facebook pages.

    According to my twenty-something classmates, the fact that my kids allow me to 'friend' them on facebook mean they aren't getting in trouble. I hope that they are right.

  7. I'm out of that parsha now but IMHO there is also something to be lost by helicopter parenting, if you don't give kids a chance to fail, they will imho never learn to succeed. Finding venues to limit the downside is important, taking away any chance can be counterproductive imho.
    Joel Rich

  8. Re: the "I'm not cool enough" issue, I think you have a lot more of a shot with teenagers than you think. I'm not an adolescent psychologist, so my observations are purely subjective, but they are based on my own experience with teenagers (I taught in high school before and was occasionally involved in youth groups). I think that a large part of the "coolness" of adolescents is being "with it." The "cool" kids are familiar parts of the adult world that still appeal to the "kid" in them (sports, movies...). From what I recall from your derashos and personal conversations, you know all of these things. Second, I was able to build rapport with teenagers by being actively engaged with what they are doing or are concerned about, even if I didn't know much about it (I simply listened and learned from them). Simply starting conversations can help with that ("what did you guys think of the movie," "how was the game,")... And apparently, the kids related to you enough to open up about some very personal things.

  9. G6-
    Thanks! Checked it out and commented there...


    Agreed, but surely there is a middle ground

    I hear; thanks.