Though the modern ritual of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a relatively recent invention, being more or less codified in the 14th century C.E. and achieving its egalitarian model in the early 20th, its roots are considerably older. The ancient books of Jewish law, such as the Mishnah, identify the age of legal and social responsibility as 13 as far back as 3000 years ago. This is certainly at odds with the laws of most modern societies where the age of majority tends to fall somewhere between 16 and 18 years. Considering the way 21st century cultures are structured, as pertaining to school, property and other legal and social matters, the gravity of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony has been diminished. For several generations now, religious law has not been synonymous with common law for Jews. The lack of responsibility and accountability for individuals of Bar or Bat Mitzvah age that results from this takes much, though not all, of the meaning away from the experience. It is the duty of Jewish parents to lend extra weight to the lives of their children after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes place.
In order for the ostensible ascension to adulthood of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah to have an impact for the young person experiencing it, the ritual must be followed by an increase in both expectations from his or her parents and freedoms afforded by them. There are many ways to demonstrate this to a young person. Consider the following.
If a young person still has a set bedtime at age 13, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is as good a time as any to remove it. The new freedom of choosing when to sleep can have a pretty big impact on a kid's sense of self-discipline. Sure, this will inevitably result in some sluggish mornings after staying up too late, but a few exhausting days at school will teach the invaluable lesson of getting proper rest for a good reason, not just because mom or dad said so.
The post Bar or Bat Mitzvah period is also a great time to start teaching practical life skills like cooking, cleaning and mending. There's no reason a 13-year-old can't learn to wash his or her own clothes, clean dishes and repair ripped clothes or broken possessions. These new lessons can also be a lot of fun and result in the youthful thrill of autonomy. A new Bar or Bat Mitzvah can certainly learn the basics of the kitchen where the reward for skill and attentiveness is immediate. There's nothing like successfully baking one's first batch of properly made cookies or having the know-how to make pizza from scratch. These are excellent lessons because through them freedom is a natural result of responsibility.
But the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony is about more than marking the beginning of a young person's individual liberty and accountability, it's also about him or her stepping up to a more active role in his or her community. Introducing your child to volunteer opportunities in your city can show him or her how a responsible, mindful individual can make the world better through action. There are plenty of organizations that specialize in such experiences, like the Youth Volunteer Corps of America and the YouthNoise leadership program. Encouraging participation in a local temple youth group is also a way of promoting involvement in the Jewish community specifically.
These are just a few suggestions to get the ball rolling. What's important is that, as a parent, you recognize that the Bar and Bat Mitzvah are not just rituals from a bygone era, that there's real wisdom in compelling young adults to begin thinking and acting in a more grown-up fashion as early as is prudent. As parents it is our responsibility to prepare our children for life in the world and as Jews it is our responsibility to make sure that life is a good one.