If you haven’t read the following piece by Michael K. Mulligan, The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager, I highly recommend it. This is his core message:

We can do better.

Truth is, we know full well that lasting happiness springs from good health, solid values, meaningful work, multiple positive relationships, and selfless service. So how about we cease and desist on the pressure front – and get our eye back on the ball that matters – stop asking What (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and begin asking Who, Where, and How?

1.      Who tells us who we are?

2.      Where do we want to go with our lives?

3.      How do we want to get there?

As a parent of two teenage boys and an almost 10-year-old girl (who often thinks she is a teen), I know that I can do better. I know that I have uttered those dreadful phrases that reside on the “pressure front” – asking what grade, how many points scored, and a myriad of performance-related questions. It’s really difficult to avoid this mindset. It is the predominant message in society and, as parents, we tend to reflect our surrounding culture. Most of us have been raised with the “what” questions since our infancy. Performance outcomes can’t always be sidestepped; they are an unavoidable aspect of life, but they should not be our obsession as they only tell part of the story. It doesn’t help that most of our society’s heroes and role models are famous athletes, entertainment stars and billionaires – and that their primary stories are not about who, where, how but rather what.

Yet, when I reflect back on those teachers, coaches, counselors, mentors, friendships, and parental moments that have most inspired me and helped me grow, it was those messages that led with “Who, Where, How” that rise to the top.

I see it more and more every year – in summer, at a weekend retreat, even at a reunion – the weight of the world being lifted from children’s shoulders.

Try it – think about those who have really helped you grow your self-esteem, your inner core. What kind of messages did they deliver to you? Even though it is difficult to cut against the grain, we as parents have the ability, opportunity and obligation to do so. It is never too late to begin. We can’t control the media’s messaging but there are ample relationship opportunities we can control – and many of us play multiple roles in life – as parents, coaches, mentors, counselors, friends, family. We have the power of relationships.

We are blessed to have Judaism as a tradition which provides us with cherished values, perspectives, mindsets to help us along the way. Betzelem Elohim, the idea that we are all created in a divine image, with unique gifts to share with the world, is one of our pillars and can help dictate our relationships with our children and each other.

For those of us who work with Jewish youth in the camping and NFTY worlds, we hold this term near to our hearts and we use the phrase frequently – to help guide our interpersonal relationships, our leadership, managerial and supervision culture; and to use it as a guide for connection between campers, staff, parents, board members, faculty, donors, alumni – our community. When we talk about being a holy community, I cannot think of anything more holy than how we treat each other. How do we interact, respect, tolerate, embrace each other as divine individuals sharing the life journey? How do we really look into each other’s souls to bring out the best and celebrate our goodness?

By focusing on each other’s gifts, by helping each other discover and celebrate our best selves, we get a glimpse of why campers and staff say camp and NFTY are where they can be their best and how this translates to greater self-esteem and a deeper appreciation for Judaism. One of my favorite Jewish texts, by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav is to “Seek the Good, Reveal It, Bring It Forth” and it’s a mantra we use at camp.

Parents frequently ask, “what is it that camp does to make my child so happy, proud of themselves, loving of Judaism, and helpful” when they return home. The answer is not in what camp does but in the nature of how we treat each other day to day, minute by minute – rebuilding each other’s humanity after a year filled with “everything so performance related.” I see it more and more every year – in summer, at a weekend retreat, even at a reunion – the weight of the world being lifted from children’s shoulders.

Wishing us all a bright Hanukkah, one filled with the right questions and a mindset of seeking, revealing and bringing forth our best.

Ruben Arquilevich
Executive Director, URJ Camp Newman