Excerpt: My Picture Perfect Family

My Picture Perfect Family
Although she wasn’t following a typical eleventh grade curriculum, Samantha managed to make Dean’s List. She also won awards for math and community service for singing Christmas carols at a nursing home. Perhaps more important were the successes in areas most parents would never measure, let alone think about. Persuading Samantha to watch TV—so she would have more in common with her peers and converse with them more easily— had bee­­­­­­­­­­­­n an uphill battle for a year, until her focus teacher, Beth, assigned American Idol as homework.

“Why do I HAVE to watch?” she argued. “I still have to read my history, practice my singing and get to bed at 10:30.”

“Because it actually IS part of your homework and it’s only 7:00,” I replied, trying not to match Samantha’s rising decibel level. “Don’t you want to join conversations with Andrea and your friends about which singer they want to win, or whether they agree with who gets kicked off? You need to express your opinion and not just sit there with nothing to say.”

“But WHY?” she repeated, entering what Beth called her “washing machine” phase.

Beth Fried, a, pretty woman around 40 with enormous brown eyes, a speech pathologist who’d been at Winston for ten years, had a playful but no-nonsense approach to Samantha’s rigid and repetitive behavior. She taught Samantha—who always wanted her hair loose—to put it back in a ponytail when the temperature was over 85 degrees or for special occasions. When Samantha objected or “got stuck,” Beth told her she was “in the washing machine.” Samantha found this analogy amusing and even adopted the term to help herself break free.

Trying to read my daughter’s thoughts, I suggested, “Maybe you don’t want to watch because you’re afraid you won’t understand what’s going on, and then you’ll feel stupid. American Idol will be a lot easier than Hannah Montana because you have a perfect ear for music, and you know how to sing. So come on out of the washing machine.”

Reluctantly, Samantha agreed to watch American Idol with me. At first I was bored silly

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watching endless auditions of young people, most of whose performances were so terrible I felt embarrassed for them. However, it was a good start for Samantha to express opinions about the obviously untalented droves. We could laugh together because it was very easy to pick out who should go to the next round and who “should get booted,” as Samantha liked to say. When she started to enjoy the show, I began to enjoy it too. However, as time went on and the candidates improved in the later rounds, the choices were no longer black or white. Samantha had so little confidence in her ability to comment and offer opinions that she became defensive and retreated into the washing machine, where she insisted on hearing the judges’ opinions (or mine) and then agreeing, without voicing her own opinion at all.

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Reading facial expressions and other non-verbal cues had always been difficult for Samantha, so I saw a great opportunity for her to practice and improve this skill, while trying to learn how to think independently. I started by asking her to look at Simon Cowell’s face and predict what he’d say. Simon usually looked horrified or bored, and his opinions were mostly negative so he was pretty easy for her to read. Next, I’d have her look at the other judge, Paula Abdul, who was usually much kinder and more positive, and then Randy Jackson, who was somewhere in the middle. As she gradually came to understand who would say what, she became even more rigid about agreeing with one of the judges or else with me.

“I want to know what you think,” I pushed her. “You don’t have to agree with me or the judges. It’s not all black and white. There’s no right or wrong answer. Even the judges don’t always agree. People have different reasons for liking or not liking a performer.”

“Why can’t I agree with the judges?” she persisted.

“Because agreeing can be an excuse not to think, and because you absolutely MUST think— if you want to be independent. Remember when Dr. Greenspan talked about gray area thinking and how you need it to make good decisions and live on your own?”

This was usually a winning argument. Samantha had yearned to be independent almost from the moment she was born, wanting to turn her head in the crib without my help even when she got stuck face down and her cheeks turned purple.

“Can I agree with the judges sometimes?”

“Of course you can. Sometimes it is black and white. But a lot of times there will be the gray area. Judging a singer is very subjective. You learned the difference between opinion and facts at school, so apply it now. Give reasons, just like you do with Dad when you play What Doesn’t Belong.”

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By the time American Idol was winding down to the finalists, Samantha had started to watch the show on her own sometimes. Once in a while she even disagreed with me about who was the better performer that evening. I looked forward to those times when she expressed an opinion different from mine and truly her own. I always enjoyed hearing her reasoning.

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by Marguerite Elisofon


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