The Normality of Difference| February 1, 2022
I have spent the last few years trying to determine a working definition of “normal”
Yitzy was a bright boy who seemed to be getting into trouble every day, typical of the kind of kid I see as a developmental psychologist when a school threatens to expel a student unless he “changes his attitude.”
By the time I met him, he was stuck in an all-too-familiar cycle: getting kicked out of class for behavior the rebbi found untoward, missing the lessons because he was sitting in the principal’s office, falling behind in his classwork, and then getting angrier and more resentful in class because he missed what his peers had just learned. More than any academic worries, however, the primary concern shared by both his rebbi and his parents was Yitzy’s middos: He was simply becoming “not nice.”
“At this point,” his exasperated parents told me, “we just want him to show basic respect for his rebbi.”
When I asked how Yitzy showed disrespect, the rebbi answered immediately: “He slouches in his chair, and when I ask him to sit straight, he’ll do it for two minutes and then slouch again as soon as I turn my back. Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah! If he can’t show basic decency in the classroom, I can’t teach him anything.”
When Yitzy sat down in my office, I saw what they were talking about. Yitzy was trying to show he really didn’t care, but he was angry: He was angry about getting into trouble constantly. He was angry about being sent to a developmental psychologist. He was angry that people viewed him as a “bad kid” who didn’t respect his teachers. And… he was slouching.
But in addition to slouching, one-word answers, and blaming his rebbi for always “being on my back,” I noticed Yitzy was doing something the entire time he was in my office: He was keeping his mouth open.
There are two reasons a fifth-grade boy might do that. The first is he has a stuffy nose and needs to breathe through his mouth. That didn’t seem to be Yitzy’s problem. The second is he has low muscle tone.
Muscle tone refers to how your muscles act when you are resting. Most people can flap their arms to loosen their muscles, and flex to make their muscles tighter and harder. Everyone’s muscles also act a certain way when they aren’t trying to do either of those things.
If your muscles are so loose and floppy you can barely lift yourself up, that’s called “hypotonicity,” and it’s a problem. If your muscles are so tight you can’t move, that’s “hypertonicity,” and it’s also a problem. Then there is everyone else in the world, who falls within the wide range of normal muscle tone, from the low end to the high end.
Muscle tone has nothing to do with how strong or athletic you are; basketball legend Michael Jordan is said to have low muscle tone — that’s why his tongue would often hang out of his mouth when he played. People with low muscle tone are widely believed to make good dancers because they are so flexible, while people with high muscle tone make good swimmers.
These muscle tone differences affect our behavior, and they explain what was going on with Yitzy. He wasn’t slouching out of disrespect; he was slouching because he had low muscle tone, and sitting up straight for extended periods of time was really hard for him. He probably didn’t even realize he was slouching until he got into trouble for it! Yitzy didn’t need a psychologist or a mussar shmuze; he needed physical therapy.
There are lots of children and adults who, because of real but subtle physical or neurological differences, struggle with various aspects of their lives. Today most of us are familiar with challenges such as dyslexia, a neurologically based learning disability that makes it difficult to learn to read through standard teaching methods; fewer recognize that there are similar brain-based learning differences that impact children’s writing (dysgraphia) or math (dyscalculia) skills.
Many teachers understand that a student who has trouble keeping still may have an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis, but fewer understand that the child sitting quietly at her seat, staring off into space instead of paying attention, may be struggling with various forms of the same diagnosis. A parent who tells a child “Look me in the eye so I know you’re listening” probably doesn’t realize that someone on the autism spectrum may turn away because he wants to focus on what the parent is saying instead of focusing on making eye contact. In each of these examples, a child may be misdiagnosed as lazy, inattentive, uncaring, unintelligent, or chutzpahdig when, in fact, her brain or body is just wired differently.
In my role as director of Makor Institute, the research and education branch of Makor Care and Services Network, I have spent the last few years trying to determine a working definition of “normal.” The original, mathematical definition of “normal” — literally “like the mathematical norm” — is clearly not how the word is used today.
But even more modern definitions, such as “usual” or “expected” or “standard” (as in, “Temperatures are above normal for this time of year,” or, “He’s just a normal guy”) don’t really hit the mark. Playing saxophone, or having red hair, or living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle are not necessarily expected or standard traits of the human population; and while having these traits might make someone different from most people, such a person is not typically viewed as “abnormal” for having them.
The best definition we’ve come up with so far is that “normal” means “accepted by society.” If, however rare it may be, a characteristic, behavior, or lifestyle is accepted by society, it is considered “normal.” At the same time, perhaps we as a community should recognize that it can also be dangerous to consider traits and behaviors that are not particularly adverse as “abnormal” rather than less common. At the very least, we can try to be dan l’kaf zechus and judge people favorably by seeking reasons for nonstandard behaviors before viewing them as abnormal. Such an approach certainly would have helped Yitzy.
In the end, it didn’t take much time for a personal trainer to help Yitzy strengthen his core muscles so his low muscle tone didn’t cause him to slouch as much. Fixing his reputation at school — and his attitude toward the rebbi who had labeled him a troublemaker — took a bit longer.
We should not needlessly classify children like Yitzy as abnormal. “Normal” does not mean average or standard or same; it just means being accepted for who we are. If we widen the category of acceptable to include unique traits, then we expand the definition of “normal” as well.
We are all created b’tzelem Elokim, in Hashem’s image. In a world that often rewards sameness, it is important to remember the normality of difference. —
Stephen Glicksman, PhD, is a licensed developmental psychologist who serves as director of clinical innovation at Makor Care and Services Network as well as director of Makor Institute, its research and education branch.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 897.
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