“I’m bad at math” my 8-year-old daughter complains.
“It takes me a long time to do my homework and I can’t do the problems in my head like Caleb,” (her older brother) she says. Though her assessments tell a very different story, there is no convincing her that she is mastering the concepts with fluency, because all she sees is that other kids finish their work before she does.
This is just a few days after Caleb, my 10-year-old, to whom everything academic seems to come naturally, said matter-of-factly to my whole family, “I’m the sports kid in the family. Asher” — the oldest sibling — “is the smart one.”
My four children all are so different from each other, each with incredible strengths, varied perspectives on life, and of course unique challenges. When I describe them, the things that stand out to me are very different from how they view themselves. I see each of my children as a compilation of every wonderful attribute that they express, every positive aspect of their being, whether it is one child’s kindness, another’s strong will, his musical talent and appreciation, her fierce commitment to all that is fair and just.
They each have something individual and distinct to offer the world. And yet it often feels as though each of them only sees their perceived weaknesses in comparison to those around them.
This phenomenon pains me, but it is not surprising. After 36 years of growing and changing and learning about myself and my own strengths, I still often feel pulled into the trap of needing these qualities or skillsets to line up perfectly with the values of whatever slice of society I find myself surrounded by in a given moment. As a woman with my feet in many different worlds, it often feels as though I constantly am struggling to define my strengths independently, before others push me in a different direction.
When I am asked to speak at Jewish events or to Jewish organizations, I often am asked to include a d’var Torah (words of biblical teaching) in my presentation. It’s such a simple and pure request, and yet every time it leaves me feeling as my kids often must feel. I feel as if all my strengths, and everything else that I bring to the table, are not enough. I must speak not only about my experiences and perspectives as a leader, a community organizer, an elected official, and a mother, but I also must have the knowledge of Torah (which I lack in comparison to most in the observant Jewish community) as well as the eloquence to deliver compelling and thoughtful words that are tied to both the historical texts and the subject matter at hand.
Though I am there in front of these rooms for all the right reasons, which should make me feel proud, instead I feel inadequate because I am focused on the exact intersection of their values and my weakness, especially as compared to the many scholars who generally fill rooms in these institutions.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a beautiful tradition to include words of Torah at a Jewish gathering. I wouldn’t mind if they asked if someone else at the event could give a d’var Torah before or after I speak. But it is precisely this concept — the idea that we must be good at everything to be truly smart or capable, that we can’t merely offer up to the world only that at which we excel — that leaves our children and us feeling as though we are never quite good enough, and especially that we are not as good as the person next to us, who probably has the exact skillset that we are lacking.
By way of another example, there is a woman I know who I find to be incredibly accomplished and inspiring. She is an attorney and a writer and a moving speaker. But she will never host a meeting or an event in her house — because she can’t bake. She spends so much of her time avoiding any scenario where her “glaring” weakness will be displayed to the world that she barely even recognizes how much she has to offer.
My dream for my children is that when they are adults, they will live in a world where they can feel good about everything that they offer. Period. I want them to see how talented, beautiful, and inspiring they are without ever comparing themselves to others around them who are also talented, beautiful, and inspiring, but in completely different ways.
I want them to see themselves as I see them, as everything they are, and nothing they are not. Perhaps the more we model that truth as adults, without ever feeling inadequate because of the gap between our talents and others’, the more likely it is that our children will believe that everyone has something completely awesome and unique to offer to the universe.