My son wants to have a fancy bar mitzva in a restaurant. He wants a band, a photographer, and all the trimmings. We are simple people, and never thought it was necessary to spend so much money on an affair in order for it to be simchadik. There are two reasons: Hashkafically (religiously), we don’t believe in frivolous spending. We also try to be financially responsible and not spend beyond our means. Considering the many expenses coming up as our family grows older, we don’t want to blow it on this one event or create a precedent for the other children. How important is it to give our child what he wants? Should we stand up for our beliefs or give in to him so that he will feel equal to his classmates? Some of his classmates have had big affairs and some have had more simple affairs in their homes. My child is very competitive and always wants to have the best. Where do we draw the line?
Plain Jane Mom
Dear Plain Jane Mom,
This is a very difficult scenario to negotiate, and it is one that has an impact on areas of life far beyond your son’s bar mitzva. As you move towards reaching a decision, let’s start with some important dynamics to keep in mind when trying to work this out with your son.
I say “work this out with your son,” because it is crucial for him to be involved in this decision-making process. Let me explain: It sounds like there are a few issues intertwined here – one is that he wants something that costs more than you want to pay. The other is his competitive nature, which is the underlying source of his desire to impress his friends.
We might think that making a simple bar mitzva seuda is the perfect way to teach your son that who he is cannot be measured by external glamour, that the cost of his bar mitzva seuda need not define or limit his self worth. However, this most likely would not be effective, and could even backfire. If he does not realize this value already, ignoring his wishes will just set up deep resentment and the sense that his values are irreconcilable with yours. He may end up seeing himself as a bad person or just different than you are – and that would make it very challenging for you to influence him positively in other areas.
I remember sharing a long car ride over 20 years ago with a man who was a rebbe in a yeshiva in Israel. He had very limited means, and he told me that he asked his rebbe whether or not he should borrow money to buy one of his sons an expensive pair of sneakers, something that already was a status symbol at that time. His rebbe told him that if all the kids in his son’s class had them, and he needs them to feel like a mensch, then it is worth the expense.
My point is that different children (and adults!) really do need different things to feel acceptable and accepted. Perhaps we might think that they should not need those things – but that is immaterial, because right now they do. Sometimes this has to do with self-concept and immaturity, but sometimes it is just a personality type. It is certainly worth seeing if you can help your son develop a sense of self that goes beyond external trappings of financial success and is based on internal qualities. However, that is a long-term undertaking, and while it will be beneficial to him to better appreciate his internal strengths, it may not change his affinity for the finer things in life.
Bottom line – at this moment you have a son who does define himself based on externals more than you would like – and he needs to have a bar mitzva that he will feel good about. This does not mean that he should be allowed carte blanche to spend whatever he wants on whatever catches his fancy. This does not mean that parents are obligated to get their children whatever they say all their friends have. It does mean that a balanced approach is needed, so that your children feel that their needs matter and that they know they are accepted in spite of their lack of development in this (or any) area.
I think the key to getting through this effectively will be conveying to your son that you are on his side. You want him to feel good about his bar mitzva, too, and want to work to make it as nice as it can be – and, as the adult in his life, you are aware of the financial and spiritual implications of this, so you also represent reality and its limits. There are certain luxury features that may not come into question because that is just not your lifestyle, and you can make that clear to him. But you need to convey that you are sure that he will be happy with what he will have, and that you will work to ensure that it will be a beautiful simcha.
It may be helpful to explore with your son what ingredients are most important to him; he can rate them in order of importance. You might decide he can choose one or two of them, but he will have to accept that he can’t get everything he wants. Then you can determine if this works within your budget or if some brainstorming is needed. In other words, there are often reasonable options that can have the same effect as the more expensive item he wants. As an example, you may be able to find an amateur photographer who takes good pictures but will charge much less than the big names in the phone book. A one-man band or DJ will cost less than a three-piece band. There are even high school students who may play music beautifully but who will charge less than the going rate because they are just starting out. You might find a shul hall more affordable than a restaurant, and food that is homemade can be set out in a way that looks catered. Obviously this will require some legwork and effort, and you will once again need to decide how much of each you are willing and able to put into this.
You can also point out to him that while you want him to feel good about his bar mitzva, you would not want it to be a tool for him to show off or gain social status. That is not what a bar mitzva seuda is about. You can discuss with him what it means to reach this age, and how he is dealing with the process of beginning to develop into a young adult. What are his values for himself, and in that context, how can he make this seuda something that reflects the meaning of those values? Any discussion of this sort requires far more listening and questioning on your part than talking. It is always more effective to have him see things for himself than for a parent to insist on something that a child is not ready to see. So you don’t want to tell him what his values about becoming bar mitzva should be – you want to ask him what they are. If he leaves out the ruchnius (spiritual) part, then you can ask him about it. It can be helpful to acknowledge that everyone has conflicting desires in some area of life. He might want to have the best available of everything and yet also see why there might be good reasons not to, even for himself.
Regardless of how you decide to proceed, the fact that you are willing to work with your son rather than just tolerate some of his requests will be a very worthwhile investment in your relationship with him and, consequently, in his own sense of self. He will feel better about himself knowing that you understand his needs and wants even though he will not be able to get all that he dreams of.
Of course it is a good idea to consult your rav if you are in doubt about the plans you are considering. You also might want to check with your son’s rebbi or principal to see how the school approaches these seudos as a way of framing the discussion with your son.
Once the pressures of the bar mitzva pass, it is certainly worth beginning a conversation about self-worth and social acceptance. You want to have an ongoing dialogue that you can come back to and that he can refer to when something comes up in his life that is relevant. You might want to ask him things, such as, how does he see his social standing among his peer group? How is that determined? Who are the people whose opinions matter to him on this subject and why? Could he imagine someone being accepted without “fitting in” the way he thinks of that term? If so, how could they do that? Does he like the fact that acceptance might be determined by external things that are often out of someone’s control? No child can determine how much money his or her parents have yet may be judged based on things only attainable with money. If he were designing a social structure, would he want limits to acceptance at all? Perhaps you can explore people he knows or is related to who don’t meet his external requirements and see how he feels about them as people, in spite of their being outside of his “social system.”
The key is for you to be someone he can bounce his ideas and fears off of, without having to worry that you will judge him. Obviously, these questions need to be appropriate for his level of maturity and capacity for abstract thought. But as long as he is able to consider these issues, this can be a very positive dialogue to have. It is more helpful to drop pieces of information as if you were planting seeds than to lecture – and this type of dialogue can provide a framework for that.
It is natural for you to not be happy with where his values may be at this moment, but it is important to remember that he is very young. Maturity happens gradually, through discussions and experiences, and one key ingredient in the process is acceptance. The paradox of growth is that often people need to feel accepted where they are before they are willing to move on to the next step. And if it turns out that maturity does not change this aspect of his personality, then it is even more vital that you find a way to accept him as he is, so that he can benefit from your love and appreciation of his strengths.
May Hashem grant you the wisdom to help your son grow and to support him through this major milestone in a way that is supportive and also opens the door for further progress. I am sure that when you pursue this in the thoughtful manner evidenced in your question you will merit to see nachas from your son and the rest of your