Monday, September 26, 2022

The first time I heard these words was when I was watching an episode of Op­rah and I was irritated. After making a somewhat grand entrance onto the stage, Oprah dramatically unwrapped herself to reveal a slender Oprah wearing the extreme fashion statement of the era, tight jeans! There ensued a deafening round of applause and Oprah, who was obviously incredibly pleased with her accomplishment, beamed from ear to ear and graciously accepted the adulation. All was good.

Having battled weight just about my whole life and arriving, at times, at the same satisfy­ing place, I completely understood. That is, un­til she looked straight into the camera, direct­ly at the multitudes tuned in, and stated, with a straight face, “If I can do it, you can do it.” That’s when I became a cynic.

Really? Is that so? Did everyone have a pri­vate nutritionist who watched every morsel that went into her mouth and a private chef to prepare each meal so that whatever limit­ed calories one consumed was made to taste and look as appealing as possible? Did every­one have a private physical trainer who pre­scribed every exercise and stood there to make sure she completed the task correctly? And did these same fortunate people take “helpers” with them wherever they went each day, even when they traveled?

C’mon, Oprah, do you really think that a woman with four children who works full time and barely has a moment to breathe, who shops, prepares dinner, helps with the home­work, does the cleaning up and the laundry, can do it if you can do it? What about the wom­an who lives alone and is battling loneliness and depression? What about the single mom who is holding down three jobs so she can pay the rent and put some food on the table and some clothes on her children’s backs? If you can do it, she can ? OH, PLEASE!

And then Oprah, with all the money and all the help, you ended up putting back all the weight. I am not criticizing you for that. I am criticizing you for your ridiculous comment.

I went to a Bar Mitzvah and was privy to a discussion between two of my male table­mates. One man, an accomplished profession­al, was telling the other man that his mother was foolish for telling him “You can be anything you want to be.” The listener told him his moth­er was right. “Of course she wasn’t right,” he an­swered, “no matter how hard I tried, I could never be a professional baseball player, I’m just not physically capable.” He was so right! Many people play the piano, not many make it to Carnegie Hall. Many people play soccer; there was only one Pelé. The reason professional ath­letes and entertainers and others earn the as­tronomical sums of money they do is because they have rare talents and abilities, ones that are highly valued in our society—whether we think that’s fair or not.

Parents do their children a disservice if they tell them, “You can be whatever you want to be.” What would be helpful and meaningful is for parents to advise their children to pursue what interests them and to do what will help them feel happy and fulfilled while living a meaningful life. What should always be emphasized is that each person is unique—each with his/her own strengths and abilities—as well as ar­eas in which they’re not so strong. This is a good thing!

In my first year working for Bergen County, I met with a young man, an eighth grader. According to his IQ test, he had skills, but was not outstanding in terms of what is considered “intellectual potential.” However, this fellow left a lasting impres­sion on me because he was most pleasant and easy going and had a certain maturity for his age. We were doing subtests, which consisted of two parts, the first repeating an increasing string of numbers after the examiner says them, and then repeating backwards an increasing string of numbers after the examiner says them. I could prob­ably count on one hand the number of stu­dents who were able to repeat all of the numbers forward, and on two fingers the number who could do them all backward.

This fellow was determined to do them all and, with tremendous effort and will, he did! I sat opposite him silently rooting him on, wanting him to achieve this goal which had enormous meaning for him. And he did it! And it was not that he did something that someone with very strong short-term auditory memory could do eas­ily, it was his determination and the effort he put into it that left the impression. Fi­nally, at the end of the testing, because I do this with all eighth graders, I asked where he wanted to go to high school.

When I asked why he chose that par­ticular school, the response was “all my friends are going there.” I asked, “What will happen if you don’t get in?” He kind of shrugged and said “I’ll make new friends.” This was a boy I knew would make it in life—he had determination to do his best— when it was something he wanted—and, most important, he believed in himself. I still smile when I think of him.

The following year I met a young girl. Her test scores were in a lower range, and as the testing ended and we said good-bye, I felt she was going to be fine and happy because she felt comfortable with herself and her abil­ities. My expectations were confirmed when I recently spoke to an administrator from the school she attended who told me she was do­ing quite well. Could this child have become a doctor or an engineer or chosen a field that required a type of intelligence that she didn’t have? That’s highly unlikely. But, could she emphasize her strengths in order to find her niche? Absolutely!!

Recently I met a wonderful high school junior. He was at ease and friendly and had a good sense of who he was. I enjoyed working with him and, according to the IQ test, he had good, solid intelligence. What was equally delightful and pleasurable, and, I have to admit, somewhat of a sur­prise, was meeting with his mom, a very down-toearth, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of woman. She knew her son very well, and completely accepted him as he was. Although part of a highly educated, professional family, she said this child was not academically inclined—and she was fine with that. She was sure her son would find his way and as long as he could do what would make him happy, it was okay with her.

When he was supposed to start his sen­ior year in high school, after some consid­eration, he announced he was going to go to Israel and join the army. The courses he would be taking as a senior were of lit­tle consequence and he felt it would just be postponing what he really wanted, de­ciding to earn a GED instead. His parents, knowing this was not a boy heading to college at this point, and respecting the thought and consideration he had put into his decision, agreed to the GED and his go­ing to Israel.

A few years later this young man ex­celled in the army, was accepted into the paratroopers (not an easy feat), and was re­cently elected with two other boys as the best paratroopers of the whole unit.

Did these parents make a mistake by not insisting this boy struggle and agonize over academic achievement? Were they right in recognizing his weaknesses and in respecting his own insight into what was best for him? To me, the young man de­serves a “yasher koach” and “kol hakavod,” and so do his parents.

Then there was the fifth grader, a girl who received the short end of a blunt, hurtful stick. At the Planning Meeting, where we first met the mother and teacher, they were both very negative about the child. It was particular­ly hurtful to hear a parent speak so disparag­ingly. But when I worked with the girl, I found she had some wonderful attributes and posi­tive aspects. These perceptions were included in my report. Despite this, after reading the re­port her mother expressed disdain and nega­tivity about her daughter. Several weeks later, a teacher asked to talk to me about her. Work­ing with this student for special projects, she said she had seen my report and agreed entire­ly with me that the child had some special and exceptional qualities and abilities. She won­dered why they couldn’t be seen by the regular classroom teacher or her own parents. I won­dered the same. I am still pretty sure that, be­cause the areas where it was desired she excel, but didn’t, those other, shining, areas became dim. That was incredibly sad.

Similarly, a very bright, creative young girl had a father who emphasized intel­lectual, rational pursuits, considering im­agination and “flights of fancy” a waste of time. The child learned to inhibit her crea­tivity, eventually feeling trapped. It wasn’t until she was in high school and able to take a modern dance class that some of that yearning was able to be expressed. As a mature woman with grown children at this point, her imagination is expressed in var­ious ways, but the full expression of what might have flourished had she not been sti­fled will never be known.

A number of years ago, at a family event, I met with my husband’s cousin, a dentist. I asked him about a suggestion made by a local dentist I had seen, and his advice has guided me through a variety of issues ... “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He was the father of a two-year old as a result of a second marriage, and his son seemed exception­ally bright. He asked me what I thought of pushing the boy in terms of working with him in regard to acquiring skills and knowledge. My advice was to let the child guide him. If he seems to want to learn let­ters and/or reading, work with him. If he appears interested in numbers and math­ematics, work with him, encourage him, as well as with any other interests he may express. And if he just wants to play in the mud, let him have fun.

The essence is to support him, back him up, but not to push. Would we, in fact, have a Steven Spielberg today if his mom didn’t let him wander the desert (as he has report­ed) and instead insisted he get an “A” in cal­culus? Probably not; and what a loss that would have been!

Among the great gifts parents can be­stow on children is recognizing and affirm­ing all the assets the children have while encouraging and supporting them when­ever needed and letting them know that whatever they are is enough!

Nancy Zweibach can be contacted at [email protected]­zon.net. http://www.thepsychspeaks.com

By Nancy Silverman Zweibach

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