By Cindy Mindell
It started with a letter, and ended with bat-mitzvah money. This is the career arc of Vanessa Van Petten, a “youthologist” who, at 25, is becoming known as the go-to expert on fostering healthy parent-child relationships.
The founder of RadicalParenting.com will speak in Fairfield County this month, on Oct. 5 at Temple Israel in Westport, and on Oct. 20 at Temple Sinai in Stamford.
Van Petten attributes her professional life to what she calls the “black hole” of her childhood. “As a teen, I didn’t talk with my father for three years,” says the Los Angeles native. “I felt justified in my anger, and felt that I had the worst parents on earth.”
One day, after being grounded by her father, 16-year-old Vanessa wrote a letter explaining all the reasons she thought he was a bad parent.
That was the breakthrough. “My dad wrote me back and said, ‘This is the first time you’ve talked with me about this.’ He wrote, ‘Here are the things I can fix, and here are things you can fix.’ It was the first realization I had that, if I talk to my parents, they will listen.”
That kind of parent-teenager dialogue was missing from most parenting books, Van Petten says. She set out to fill in the gap, interviewing 700 teenagers around the world by the time she was 17, which she printed out and gave to friends and their parents.
As a student at Emory University, Van Petten started the school’s first Jewish women’s group, Neshama. She graduated and returned to Los Angeles, where she re-interviewed the kids she’d spoken with at age 17, who were now five years older, and used her bat-mitzvah money to self-publish a book. Her parents reluctantly agreed to let her live at home for a year, on the condition that she return to school if her idea didn’t pan out.
“I spent eight months peddling the book out of my car,” Van Petten says.
At the same time, Van Petten’s website, RadicalParenting.com, caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Traffic to the site, mostly written by ‘tweens and teens, skyrocketed. With less than four months left to honor the agreement with her parents, the professional “youthologist” was born.
Now Van Petten is incorporating the work of clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, to teach teens and parents to read non-verbal communication. Her website follows concerns and trends among ‘tweens and teens around the world. She also works with Jewish audiences.
“It’s important to me to encourage young people to embrace Judaism as a choice,” she says. “For most teens, after your bar or bat mitzvah, it really does become a choice. It’s so important at that juncture for them to say, ‘I am Jewish, I choose to be involved in Jewish life.’ When I speak with teenagers, I help them to see Judaism as a cultural identity. With parents, I discuss how to encourage the cultural identity part and empower their kids to make the choice to be Jewish.”
Van Petten describes her own Jewish background as “strange.” She was raised Jewish by a Jewish mother, and a non-Jewish father whose family was openly antisemitic. As a child, she learned to navigate her unique family situation and maintain her Jewish identity. “There were times when I didn’t understand my situation, and questioned whether my father’s family was right about Jews,” she says. “When I was 10, I decided to stand up to being Jewish. My Jewishness was a conscious choice.
“I tell kids that they can create their own ways to be Jewish,” Van Petten says. “And like any relationship, the one they have with their Jewishness will be fluid and changing too.”
Vanessa Van Petten will speak on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m. at Temple Israel in Westport. For more information call (203) 227-1656, ext. 330; and at Temple Sinai in Stamford on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.. For more information call (203) 321-1373, ext. 104.