Learning from the Bar / Bat Mitzvah Experience

Michael M. Segal MD PhD

Many of us have bright children, eager to please, who cheerfully do the hard work to become excellent.  This essay is not about those children.  This essay is about the kid who wants to do as little work as possible.  I’ve been blessed with one such kid who drove me to learn how to make Bar Mitzvah preparation more efficient. 

The setting for this essay is the Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah experience.  This experience is typically the first time a Jewish child is held to an adult standard of excellence. The experience is an opportunity for a kid to learn to achieve excellence, but more importantly it is also an opportunity to learn how to excel in an efficient way, instead of going through the motions of learning and just “punching the clock”.

The Bar Mitzvah experience is suitable for learning efficiency since the end result is a pre-defined set of goals to achieve.  A child who tends towards laziness can realize that it makes sense to get to that that fixed goal with less work. 

Here are 2 key lessons about the Bar Mitzvah experience, with implications that extend more widely:

Lesson 1: Focus effort on what needs to be learned

Kids waste lots of time practicing what they already know.  A good way to demonstrate that is to use 10 different colored pens and circle the word pronunciation errors for 10 practice sessions on a photocopy of the Bar Mitzvah readings.  It soon becomes clear that the errors are not random; they cluster around a few words.  Most kids spend time practicing the entire reading each time.  That's a waste of time.  They need to focus on eliminating the errors. 

Bar Mitzvah preparation is a good opportunity for a kid to realize that being lazy and being efficient are two sides of the same coin.  Efficiency is a force-multiplier, something that even a lazy kid can appreciate.  This is what Bill Gates was thinking when he said “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

Efficiency is important even before you are looking for a job.  Most high school students are inefficient when they study.  They review their notes, when they should be making notes on notes and focusing on what is forgettable.  Such “notes squared” have the further advantage of being small, giving a sense of progress, and making it easier for the student to get fluid with the subject material.

Lesson 2: Get the parents out of the loop

It's fine for parents to be helpful, but parents need to know when to get out of the loop and allow the kid to take responsibility.  A Bar Mitzvah is an excellent opportunity for both kids and parents to learn this. 

In Bar Mitzvah preparation, a parent can get out of the loop at the point of everyone’s maximal frustration - when the kid starts arguing about whether the errors identified by the parent scoring the kid’s reading were actually errors.  But errors in Bar Mitzvah reading are not matters of opinion.  There is a right answer, and with modern technology it is simple to tell right from wrong.     

Bar Mitzvah practice sessions can be recorded, something most kids with a smartphone know how to do.  Surprisingly, some kids who will argue with you at the top of their lungs that your scoring of an error was bogus, will matter-of-factly concede their error when reviewing a recording.  Their agreeableness may come as a shock, but it can be the time to act.  At this milestone, the parent and kid can agree that the parent should get out of the loop and the kid can take responsibility for keeping score.  The moment is liberating, not only for the parent but also for the kid, because the kid feels empowered.  This builds a skill that will be useful in many other contexts.

Putting it all together

The classic Bar Mitzvah quote is “today I am a man”.  Some imagine that the kid is announcing acceptance of the yoke of Mitzvot.  Others think of the quote as the kid’s counterpart to the Baruch Sh'ptarani blessing, in which a parent gives thanks for being free “from the penalties due to this one”.  But in a more profound sense, the quote is a recognition of having a first experience of taking responsibility to be excellent.  If done right, the skills of efficiency and independent responsibility have also been learned, and these are applicable throughout life.  

Excerpts from this article appeared in the Jewish Advocate (Boston, USA) in on 3 October 2014.  Copyright © 2014-2019 Michael M. Segal

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