Mrs. Kavenberg arrives alone for our intake. “My husband will be here soon,” she apologizes. “He had a big meeting. He felt it would be better if Mordy didn’t come for this session,” she adds. Unusual, but Mordy is already in sixth grade… Mentally, I file this comment for future reference.
Mrs. Kavenberg hastens to reassure me that nothing’s really “wrong” with Mordy. “He’s very smart,” she stresses. “Tall, good-looking, a leader (1). I guess it’s only natural that he always thinks he’s right.” Mrs. Kavenberg turns to the door for a moment and then says quickly, “The truth is, in many ways his personality is very similar to my husband’s. He’s a successful businessman, a perfectionist. He’s accomplished a lot. But when he and Mordy are in the same room – sparks fly. If they don’t agree – and they often don’t – they each just dig in their heels, keep repeating themselves forever.” With this disclosure Mrs. Kavenberg clams up, as if afraid she’s said too much.
I try to help her out. “Sounds like Mordy can be a little stubborn. How does he get along with your other kids?”
“Fine. But you know, he’s the oldest – he bosses them around and expects them to play by his rules.” She offers an example: “He’s not into Lego anymore, he’s too old for it. But we bought him lots of Lego when he was younger, and he always built it exactly according to the instructions (2). When the younger kids play with the Lego now, he goes ballistic that they build their own things instead of what it was ‘meant’ for.”
There’s a tap on the door and Mordy’s father strides in. He gets right down to business.
“I believe in old-school parenting, not this new-age therapy stuff,” he informs me without a trace of apology. “If Mordy can’t toe the line, he should be punished. I don’t tolerate chutzpah.”
“Can you give me an example of chutzpah?”
Mrs. Kavenberg jumps in. “If his rebbi tells him off for something, he’ll just keep insisting that he’s right. The truth is that maybe he even was right. But he’s the student. He can’t keep insisting on his opinion when the rebbi tells him his behavior is inappropriate.” (3)
Mordy’s father leans back and crosses his legs. “The way I see it,” he says with finality, “Mordy just needs to get his act together. My wife and I are good parents – just look at our other kids.” His wife winces and looks at me.
“You are your wife do seem to be exemplary parents,” I affirm, “especially by the fact that you’re here to help your child even though you don’t necessarily ‘believe’ in therapy. And I’m sure it’s true that your other kids are doing well. It’s just that Mordy might need something different.”
Mrs. Kavenberg almost sags with relief when I finish talking. “Something different,” she repeats, looking at her husband. He just shrugs as his wife schedules Mordy’s first session.
The way Mordy strides into the therapy room reminds me uncannily of his father, and he’s every bit as tall, smart and good-looking as his mother claimed.
The table is bare except for a container of Popsicle sticks. I hand one to Mordy. “Can you bend this? But don’t break it,” I warn. “Just bend it a little.”
I watch as Mordy tries. It doesn’t really work – almost immediately the stick splinters. “Sorry,” he says.
“No problem, can you try again?” This time he’s more careful: it doesn’t snap, but it doesn’t bend either. He glances at me, then, concentrating hard, pulls the ends slowly toward each other. Just when he begins to look triumphant, it snaps.
I laugh lightly. “Not very flexible, is it?” I hand Mordy a rubber band. “Try this.” The rubber band, obviously, bends and stretches in all directions.
“Some people are like popsicle sticks,” I explain to Mordy. “They’re unyielding. They go only one way – stiff and straight. They don’t bend. But other people are flexible – like rubber bands (1). They can go in many different directions.”
While Mordy mulls this over, I retrieve a sketch pad and a pencil. “Your mother says you’re artistic.” He nods. “Can you draw a picture of me?” I’m not at all surprised that Mordy doesn’t shyly demur! In a minute, he hands me the paper. It contains a fantastic caricature of me. “Incredible!” Mordy grins. “Can you do another one? But this time you need to keep your entire body stiff. No bending over or leaning or anything.” I help Mordy get into position. After a few strokes he gives up. “I can’t draw like that!”
“Of course you can’t.” I put the original caricature and the unfinished sketch side by side. “Tell me, how will you accomplish more – by being stiff, or flexible?”
At the end of the session I ask Mordy to step out while I talk to his mother for a minute. Mordy checks the clock and then agrees. (3) “Mordy does tend to be rigid,” I tell his mother frankly. “And we’re going to work on it. But one of the greatest tools for Mordy’s growth is actually in your hands: modeling and self-talk.” (2)
Mrs. Kavenberg looks uncertain. “Self-talk?”
“Sure,” I say. “Mordy doesn’t know what’s going on in your head. You have to say it aloud for him. For example, ‘I really wanted to go to Bubby and Zaidy for the sedarim, but Tanta Shiffy wants to go too. We can’t both go. I’m going to be flexible and go another time.’”
I walk Mrs. Kavenberg out to where Mordy is waiting “Who do you think it’s more fun to be around?” I ask Mordy. “A kid who is flexible and can change their mind?” I hand him a rubber band. “Or someone who is rigid, who ‘breaks’ if they have to change their mind?” I give him the Popsicle stick too. Both Mordy and his mother look thoughtful as they leave.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A businessman,” Mordy says immediately. “Like my father.”
“That’s great,” I say, casually handing him a rubber band (1). “Flexibility is an important skill for a businessman. They’re constantly coming up with Plan B.” Mordy looks puzzled. “Plan B,” I clarify. “For when Plan A doesn’t work out. Do you like chocolate chip cookies?”
Mordy looks wary at this change of topic. “I guess.”
“There’s a legend that chocolate chip cookies were invented by accident. A woman who ran a restaurant was trying to make chocolate cookies, but she ran out of cocoa. Instead of getting stuck on her Plan A, she created Plan B. She broke up a chocolate bar into bits and mixed them in. Everyone loved the new cookies, and that’s how the chocolate chip cookie was born!” I pause to let him absorb the story. “What would have happened if she’d have gotten stuck on her Plan A?”
“She couldn’t have made the cookies.”
“What do you think is better? To have no cookies, or to have Plan B cookies?” I wink. “Personally, I always think any cookies are better than no cookies!”
I hand Mordy a newspaper clipping. “If you’re interested in business, you’ll like this.” It’s an article on the rise and fall of Kodak. When he’s done reading I ask, “Why did their business fail?”
“No one was buying film anymore.”
“That’s right. Film was their Plan A. What kind of Plan B could they have created?” I wait, but Mordy doesn’t answer. (2) “What about digital cameras? That could have been a pretty good Plan B. But they got stuck on their Plan A. Is it better to have Plan B, or go out of business?”
Mordy seems to struggle, then says, “But they didn’t want to sell digital cameras!” (3)
“I know. It’s hard to let go of Plan A. But if you always insist on sticking with it, there will be times when you get nothing. If you can create a Plan B, you have the chance to get some of what you want. Which is better?”
At the end of our session I review our work with Mordy’s mother. “Use the term ‘Plan B’ as a cue, (4)” I advise. “Let’s say he wants to visit Yossi, but he’s not available. What happens?”
“He gets stuck,” Mrs. Kavenberg says immediately. “He can’t move on.”
“So when you see him getting ‘stuck,’ say to him, ‘Yossi’s not available. What’s Plan B?’ Those words can serve as his cue and redirect him.”
When Mordy leaves I wish him a good week. “Make it as great as it can ‘B’!” I joke. Mrs. Kavenberg chuckles, but I can see Mordy doesn’t get it. (5)
Mordy’s mother has been complaining about his lack of ability to get along with his siblings, particularly the brother directly beneath him. It’s hard to get along with rigid kids! I invite his brother Yitzy to join our next session (1).
Remembering Mordy’s Lego comment, I’m ready with a huge bin of Lego. “I want each of you boys to build a building,” I instruct. Mordy’s builds a predictable three-story building in brick colors. Yitzy’s building is twice the height of Mordy’s, varying widths, an array of colors, and includes a helipad and swimming pool.
“You’re results are completely different,” I observe. “Who followed my instructions?”
“I did,” says Mordy.
“I did!” says Yitzy.
“You both did,” I confirm, “but your results are so different. That’s because people think differently and have different perspectives. Neither of you are more ‘right’ or more ‘wrong.’ Both viewpoints are legitimate.”
I offer Mordy and Yitzy each a Laffy Taffy. “What do you do when a baby astronaut cries?” I read aloud. “You rocket!”
Yitz guffaws but Mordy doesn’t get it. “Rocket!” Yitzy cries. “Astronaut, rocket, baby, rock it, get it?” (2)
Mordy scowls. I can see that having Yitz around is not going to be conducive for this skill, so at Mordy’s next session I have a local circular prepared. “Here, businessman,” I kid, “you’re going to need a name for your business, no? Let’s look through this for some ideas.”
Mordy points to a full-page ad. “I got my Pesach suit there.” The store is called Suits Me Fine.
“Nice. Why do you think they call it Suits Me Fine?”
Mordy looks at me like I’m crazy. “They sell suits.”
“Can you think of another meaning for the word suit?”
I introduce Mordy to the concept of a play on words. “So Suits Me Fine also implies that this suit will look great on you,” I explain. I point to an ad for a discount store called Hats Off. “They sell hats,” says Mordy.
“Hats Off is an expression of acknowledgement,” I explain. “It means, ‘good job!’ So they’re trying to imply something positive about their hats. But that’s not all. Read the ad carefully. What’s special about their store?”
Mordy reads aloud, “Last year’s stock at sale prices.”
“So can you think of another reason for their use of the word ‘off’?”
We practice for a bit and then Mordy starts to laugh. “I remember when I was in first grade,” he shares shyly, “we were coloring while my rebbi told us the story of the parsha, about how Yosef got thrown into a pit. And I thought he meant like a peach pit – and that’s what I drew – Yosef in a peach pit!” He shakes his head. “How was I supposed to know there was another kind of ‘pit’?” (3)
“Flexible thinking,” I say. “That wouldn’t happen now!”
“Yeah,” says Mordy. “That would be the pits!”
Mother – It’s only now that I realize how, well, stiff Mordy used to be. I love seeing him more chilled out sometimes. He face lights up when he laughs.
Father – I did this to make my wife happy, and I see it also made my son happy, so I admit that I’m happy.
Mordy – How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change!