I once had a student who came from a Hungarian Chassidic family, a seventh-generation chassid. He told me about how, when he stopped putting on his tefillin, his father said nothing about it—until the boy went somewhere overnight and did not take his tefillin with him. He just left the bag on the dining room table with the tefillin inside. When he returned, his father became incensed and scolded him. “You knew that I haven’t been putting my tefillin on for the past three months. How come you’re only yelling at me now?” demanded this student.
Nothing was said, but the boy understood that his father’s upset was caused by the fact that someone outside the house would find out that his son wasn’t carrying around his tefillin, and this would draw negative attention to an otherwise well-regarded family. My student, who eventually did return to observance, was repulsed by the hypocrisy of it. “What will people say?” is a concern that many people place above the needs of their child. Social approval is important to all humans in varying degrees, but in the Jewish cultures, which are microcosmic compared to most others, it is a very powerful force. It can facilitate or hinder a child’s entry into schools. It can make the difference between acceptance and ostracism in the child’s social circle. It can even render people desirable as marriage partners when they begin to search for a spouse. So nobody wants their child to be considered a bum, a krum, an “at-risk” kid, or someone from “not a good family”.
As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman indicated in the introduction to his Jewish Women in Jewish Law, the Jewish hero has an audience of One: G-d alone. It is His approval that we need. Your neighbors, the menahel, the shadchanim—they don’t even run a close second. Certainly, not keeping His mitzvos will meet with His disapproval. However, that is not what drives many parents or educators when they get upset with a child or student who is fudging his or her role as a Jew. I believe that children can sense that someone else’s opinion is more important to his or her parents than his or her own needs, his or her own struggle.
Before you get your back up at your kid for religious lapses, try to ask yourself the following two questions:
Whose approval am I seeking?
Whose needs am I obligated to address? My child’s or someone else’s?
You might end up approaching your child in a healthier and more supportive way, one that helps him or her grow Jewishly–after all, you are the primary connection your child has with Torah. The relationship that you share together is therefore much more precious than you think.