Words can take on different meanings depending upon our own preconceptions. These perceptions are the target of the marketing and media campaigns that we are inundated with on a regular basis. For instance, in recent years, “used” cars have been advertised as “pre-owned.” Pre-owned sounds so much better than used. In our minds, we picture a used car as a beaten-up jalopy, whereas a pre-owned car is one that remained idle in a driveway and was meticulously cared for. Perhaps this word play has actually redefined the word “used” over the course of time. Who knows?
Marketing campaigns aside, if we take a moment to think about it, as we learn more and grow throughout our lives, we have the ability to re-evaluate and reconsider the words and ideas that have been a part of our vernacular for many years. For example, the words “individuality” and “patience” create very specific perceptions, especially when applied to raising and educating our children. If we take a step back and think about what we want and need these words to express, we might broaden and deepen the way we use and interpret them on a daily basis.
Individuality is a word that seems to have taken root in all facets of the educational world. Students are encouraged to express their individuality and to have the courage to stand out as unique individuals. In doing so, the perception is that we are supporting our children’s need to follow their own path, the path that best accentuates their strengths and talents. All true. However, two steps are prerequisites to seeking out this individuality. First, the ability and maturity to know who you are, and second, what kinds of strengths you actually possess. In order to express yourself as an individual, you must first know yourself as an individual.
Which leads to our next word, patience. We all strive to have patience with our kids—to give them more time, hear them out and avoid reflex reactions. At the same time, we encourage our kids to be patient with their demands and in their interactions with others. In setting these goals for our children and ourselves, we hope to incorporate our understanding of this important quality into our lives. The complexity of our lives today, more than ever, calls for an even deeper understanding of the word.
Parents have always had high expectations for their children. It is the old-school value system—each generation should best the prior. In a fast-paced society that emphasizes a finished product that meets specifications in the least amount of time, this has led to a completely new definition of success. The consequence is that this has put tremendous pressure on kids, and perhaps even changed the course of their lives prematurely.
We must understand that, as with everything in life, time is our friend. We need the patience to give our children the time and space to evolve, develop, mature, discover themselves, change and better understand this crazy world, their faith and their relationships. All of this, together with the respect for and discovery of self, is the formula for success academically, spiritually, personally, creatively and, ultimately, professionally, especially when paired with room for changes along the way. If we rush this because kids feel the pressure to meet our own expectations so early on, we stifle them rather than help them along on their journey. Ironically, I am reminded of an age-old adage: “Ma shelo ya’aseh hasechel, ya’aseh hazman” (time accomplishes what the mind does not).
A few weeks ago, an alumnus came in to discuss a STEAM initiative that we are launching next year. He recently completed a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at a prestigious university, and works for a company that designs and creates medical devices. We started talking about his experiences at our high school, and mentioned that one of his science teachers had actually inspired his career choice. He explained that this teacher had taken the time not only to teach him but also to talk about his personal and academic strengths as well as his goals and ambitions. It was during one such conversation that the teacher suggested the field of biomedical engineering as the perfect fit for his intellect and demeanor. He tested that suggestion in college and thus began the course of study, which led him to his major. I was thrilled to learn that one of our teachers had made such an impact and that our alumnus could not be happier with the path he chose.
This young man’s happiness and success was a direct result of gaining a deeper understanding of his own strengths and talents, as well as having had the time and space to discover his true passion and to choose his own individual road.
A broader definition of patience and individuality—is this the key to helping our children lead happy and productive lives? Maybe we should reflect on our own lives and the roads we used; unless they were pre-owned…
By Rabbi Jeffrey Beer
Rabbi Jeffrey Beer is head of school at Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, New York.