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My two sons have four years between them. When my eldest had his bar mitzvah, we had a big party, but it was mostly focused on family and adult friends, and we limited the number of 13-year-olds who attended. In retrospect, I think that wasn’t the best idea, and as we prepare for my younger son’s bar mitzvah, we’d like to make the celebration more geared towards him and his friends. How can I approach this with my family to minimize bad feelings and maximize excitement for our upcoming simcha?
While I appreciate that you want to make up for past missteps, what I hear in your description of both your older and your younger sons’ celebrations is you taking the lead. Who’s to say whether peers make for better guests, as compared to family and adult friends? Who’s to say that either kid will feel bad or good about what you want to propose?
Before going any further down this path, you need to talk to your kids, starting with your younger one. Ask him how he envisions his bar mitzvah. Talk to him about who he wants to celebrate with and what his priorities are and what sounds good, bad, or neutral to him. Ask him, if you’d like, to think back on his brother’s celebration and to reflect on what he pictures being the same – or different – when it’s his turn. Involve him in beginning to form a guest list so you know how many people of various demographics he’s thinking about. Be prepared to be surprised or delighted or even disappointed, but do your best to really listen to what he wants.
Then, separately, talk to your older son. Ask him to reflect on his bar mitzvah experience. Ask if he has any advice for you as you plan for his younger brother – any things he wishes you’d done differently or anything you did that really worked for him that he thinks you should do again. Don’t assume that the parts you remember positively are the same for him, or that he’s resentful about the guest list in the way you imagine he might be. Ask him questions – including what role he envisions for himself at this upcoming celebration – and listen just as carefully as you did to his brother.
In both conversations, try to keep your own opinions quiet. While it can be difficult, especially when you may be going into these conversations with your own vision, try to focus on the idea that this celebration is a milestone for your son, and that you want to help craft a moment that speaks to him. Practically speaking, you’ll leave these conversations and go off to plan something (maybe a party but maybe not!) loosely based on what you hear, but your sons must play a key role.
If either kid pushes back against the planning process, it’s ok to admit that you aren’t always right and are figuring things out as you go along. If either kid is resentful of the other, use those moments as opportunities to build family communication, to share honestly with each other, and to practice patience. If either kid is obnoxious, well, that’s part of living with teenagers.
Try not to get caught up in the details or the potential problems. At a time when there is so much sadness and uncertainty, revel in the fact that you have a simcha to plan and look forward to. Try to focus on the real priorities involved in this important moment. Any form of a celebration with any subset of people who care about your kid and your family will be something to enjoy and remember.