When a daughter becomes more religious than her mom

Tolerance, like charity, begins at home. I learned this from my oldest daughter.

Sometimes we parents can learn the most and the best from our children if we allow ourselves to open up to them. Parenting is not simply watching our children grow, but growing along with them. This takes awareness, flexibility and the ability to change. Our children certainly present us with opportunities.

Raised in a modern Orthodox home and having attended a modern Orthodox yeshiva, my daughter began her self-directed journey toward greater religiosity when she was 12. It started with her decision to no longer swim in mixed company.

When our family, along with our friends, went on a camping trip and she wouldn't go in the water, that was a tough one for me. I thought it was ridiculous not to go swimming at age 12 just because boys were there. My friend and I spoke about it and I recall her asking me how I dealt with it. This was all new to me; I didn't know. What I did know, however, was that I wasn't going to throw her in the pool, force her or have an all-out power struggle.

I wanted to understand her reasons, her thoughts behind this first major behavioral change. So began our dialogues. She started wearing only long skirts — no more pants or shorts. Then came the long sleeves. And there were numerous other examples along the way. Each new development brought with it new discussions.

As she grew into teenagerhood, there were no parties or dating. Now some parents might say, "This is great! I don't have to worry about my kid being out until all hours of the night, doing God only knows what." I looked at her self-imposed restrictions and said, "This is the time to have fun." Her answer: That was not her kind of fun, not the kind of lifestyle she was looking to lead.

This led us to talk about the whole area of dating. Her idea of dating was for the sake of finding a husband. She had no concept of dating for the fun of it or for the experience. It was for a specific goal. To me this was a foreign way of thinking. I kept saying, "You're missing out on your teenage years and what they're supposed to be about." And then I heard myself. "Supposed to" according to whom? According to my perspective, or hers?

I kept trying to listen to her, to hear her ideas, thoughts and views on her world. In the process of continuous talking and letting her try on all her ideas for size, so to speak, it became easier for me to accept that she was evolving into her own person with her own ideas about her life and how she wanted to live it. After all, she wasn't hurting anyone. It was just different from my way and what I thought her way would be.

Now I'm certainly aware of this type of lifestyle. I know people who live it. I know the more right-wing Orthodox live this way. But again, it's not my way. How did it become my child's?

Letting go and allowing for differentiation takes a lot of conscious work on our part as parents. As we raise our children from birth, we have a symbiotic relationship in which we as parents define their world. This has to change as they grow. We need to allow our children to take small steps toward defining their own worlds. We need to encourage and promote this. Our job is to begin to see them as separate beings with distinct personalities, with their own likes and dislikes, thoughts and feelings. And separate can mean different.

Tolerance comes into play when there are differences. Religious differences may appear quite small to an outsider when a child from an observant home moves further along the continuum toward greater observance. But the tolerance of the person whose reference point is being challenged — the parent — is being put to the test. Power struggles occur and arguments escalate. Parents deliver the message, "Why can't you be like us? It's good enough for us, we're comfortable with it."

But this is where respect and tolerance enter. My daughter took a change upon herself and we have become closer through it. There is beauty in reaching a high level of respect and acceptance, and doing so, in and of itself, creates closeness. This closeness comes about through the support, respect and tolerance of another's way.

We can start with small differences within our own family structure. Trying to see the things from another's point of view without necessarily agreeing or taking on that viewpoint is difficult. However, as long as no one is imposing his or his views on another person, we can get to that point of agreeing to disagree while maintaining respect and tolerance.

When this occurs within the microcosm of a home, it is more likely to extend to the macrocosm of the outside world. Sometimes it's easier to be tolerant of outsiders simply because we don't have the same kind of emotional investment in them as we do in "our own." The key here is to see that our children are not extensions of us, but rather separate and unique individuals.

The most important message our children can receive and feel on a deep level is that they are respected by us and loved unconditionally for who they are. We are then sending them out into the world to do and be the best they can. That feels good to all.