That’s Just Great

24 Aug

Maybe you’ve seen it. If you watched the Olympics, you probably did. A runner is silhouetted against a flat Midwestern horizon. As the runner gets closer to the camera, it becomes clear that he is overweight. He gets closer and closer to the camera and we find he is not just overweight, he’s a kid. Throughout the commercial, a narrator speaks eloquently about greatness, how it’s in each of us. At the end, we see the Nike logo.

Certainly, the spot is arresting and thought-provoking. As a runner and a mom, I was thrilled to see a kid positioned as a role model. How much more possible does getting fit seem after watching Nathan Sorell—for kids and adults?

But not everyone finds the commercial inspiring.

Journalist Lindy West of Jezebel thinks the ad is unreal and insulting to the obese, that Nathan didn’t “just get up and run.” She notes that Nathan puked up his breakfast in a ditch at one point. My daughter took track camp this summer. Every day, the coach cautioned the kids not to eat a full breakfast before running. Every day, at least two kids had to bail because they ate a full breakfast too soon before camp.

Frankly, puking during and after running is very real. If you watched the men’s 10k, you saw Mo Farah, the gold medal winner, celebrating with his friend and training partner Galen Rupp, who won the silver. You may not have seen Rupp upchuck after finishing.

I’m going to assume that Nike coached Nathan not to eat breakfast before filming. I’m also going to assume that Nathan, who does indeed seem committed to losing weight, eats more judiciously now before he runs.

The editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity, Dr. David Katz believes the ad shows Nathan looking “miserably uncomfortable and as if he’s about to topple over.” Dr. Katz sees nothing of greatness in the effort except, maybe, for Nathan’s commitment to do it. He would have liked to see Nathan doing something that he can be great at, like math or art or music. I’m not sure how that would help the kid hit a healthy weight but I’m not an expert in childhood obesity.

I don’t agree that Nathan looks “miserably uncomfortable.” I think he looks like anybody on a run. Is it great that he got up and ran? Absolutely. Is there anything of greatness in Nathan’s effort? Could be, and that’s where I get stuck.

In my mind, there is a difference between “great” and “greatness.” “Great” means “really good,” to me, as in, “Great! You did your homework” or “Those cookies you made were great, Mom.” “Greatness” means “excellence” to me. Greatness is reserved for those who have risen to the pinnacle in their field, like Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I wonder about greatness and my children and I don’t think I’m alone. All of those future President/CEO/American Idol Onesies are going to someone. I hear snatches of parental aspiration everywhere. Witness this overheard during my daughter’s gymnastics lesson:

Younger sister, to her gymnast sib: “You were great!”

Mom to the gymnast, who I figured to be about eight: “You were not great. You were not good. You fell off the beam three times. You have to be focused.”

Someone needs to run that mom the footage of Gabby Douglas clinging to the beam upside down on national TV.

Photo: Washington Post

My son plays guitar and drums. Lots of people assume he wants to be a rock star. Even though his heroes include Dave Grohl and Jeff Beck, he has no desire to get on the road or the stage. At a recent Passover, two (middle-aged male) guests couldn’t believe he didn’t want to be the next Jimmy Page. At first, I didn’t believe him either, but he’s said it often enough that I’m not seeing any backstage passes in my future.

My daughter looks to be passing on greatness for now, too. Watching Aly Raisman nail her floor exercise, she said, “So, if I work hard enough, I could go to the Olympics, too.” “Sure,” I said. She considered the possibility then said, “Nah. Too much work. I want my child years.”

I don’t mean to imply that my children won’t achieve greatness or that I don’t want them to. Maybe they will but I would like to let go of the idea that they need to shoot for the top in all of their endeavors.  I don’t want to amend my definition of greatness, either. My daughter is right. Achieving greatness takes a lot of hard work, no matter if you have natural talent or not. Elite runners train twice a day, every day. Gymnasts move away from their families and get tutored instead of going to school. Musicians spend hours practicing mind-numbing exercises. All in pursuit of greatness.

I think it’s great that my daughter loves flipping herself around a wooden beam and running faster than almost everyone in her class. I think it’s great that my son loves music and wants to learn how to play every instrument he gets his hands on. Is there anything of greatness in their flipping, running and playing? I don’t know and I’m working hard on not caring.

I think it’s great that Nathan Sorell got off the couch and ran. I think it’s great that Nike chose to spotlight a pretty ordinary kid.

I believe it’s true that we are all capable of greatness, but I also believe that, in some things, being great is enough.

16 Responses to “That’s Just Great”

  1. Karin Evans August 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Janice, thanks for this. It’s something I have thought about a lot myself. I see that my daughter is amazingly talented in so many ways – but I guess I think that true greatness has to come from a person’s inner drive, even if that person is a child. Parents pushing children, that seems so wrong to me, no matter how talented they are. I do not want my daughter to achieve something because I told her to. Then whose achievement is it, and who takes credit for it? I never did read that tiger mother book, which you gave me such mixed messages about, but I am also wondering if there is a relationship between what you wrote here and what you wrote about that book?

    • jmlindy422 August 24, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

      I think there is a relationship. I may have given mixed messages about the book because I combined my thoughts about Asian parenting with my thoughts about the book. My mistake. The book is one woman’s very brave look at herself and her commitment to parenting “Asian.” There is a heavy concentration of Asians in Naperville and most of my students are Asian. Though not all of them are parented Asian-style, many do. I think the book gives an excellent insight into what may be behind the “you’re no good; you have to try harder and be the best” thinking that one associates with Asian parenting but can come from any parent.

      I have a love-hate relationship with myself over pushing my kids. I often think one of them doesn’t try hard enough, but pushing that child is dangerous for everyone involved. The other child is developing some perfectionism that has my problem radar on high alert. I don’t know where the comfort zone is in guiding children in activities that could become careers if they work hard enough. I guess I default to the position that they will work hard when they find something they love enough to self-motivate. That said, I know of at least one Olympic athlete whose mother literally dragged him to practice throughout high school.

      • Karin Evans August 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

        Well, it’s not for me to judge that Olympic athlete or the mother – I’ll just say, that would never have been me. I don’t have it in me. Maybe that mother was right, and maybe she was operating at some level of intuition that was perfectly appropriate for her child. Let’s hope so. In general I’m with you – I want her to find something she loves so much that no one could stop her from doing it. Or just something she loves so much that it’s perfectly obvious to her and everyone else that it’s her path. That’s enough for me. I suspect that “greatness” comes at an enormous personal cost. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and said that he hoped his kids would feel better that they never saw him, now that he won the Tour. OMG. No further comment. And Lance Armstrong, stripped of all his titles as of today. What was his price for “greatness”? I would much rather be the kind of mom I am with the kind of daughter I have than live with the kinds of life-shattering trade-offs that come with “greatness.”

      • jmlindy422 August 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

        Wow, Bradley, get a clue! Did not know about Lance, but it figures.

  2. PDX Running Chick August 24, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you. It’s a struggle and a conscious effort not to push/force our children towards greatness. If they want it, it’s one thing, if WE want it for them, that’s completely different and we have to work hard to keep that in check.

    • jmlindy422 August 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

      Thanks, PDX Running Chick. It is a struggle. My mother pushed me to play piano (she was a piano teacher). I hated it so she let me quit but let me go back when I changed my mind later. She was a good example even if she wouldn’t let me take ballet!

  3. philosophermouseofthehedge August 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    That kid was interviewed on TV after the commercial came out. He is trying to lose weight now and be a little more active. He is trying to be better than he is currently. And that’s good – people should try to improve and be better.
    But “greatness” should be reserved for excellence as you say. A few get there. But that is OK, too. Greatness requires extreme commitment and efforts – and not everyone wants/needs to push that far. The meaning is getting watered down.
    In real life, not everyone is a winner – but good honest effort should be applauded. I,too have cringed as parents belittle a child in the gym, football game, swim team. Please, what are you teaching here?
    We also have a high percentage of Tiger Moms and Dads around. There’s also a great deal of cheating in school (organized within that specific group) due to pressure the kids feel. Unfortunately there’s been one suicide by perfectly sweet girl who made good grades, did excellent in top university, secured a great job – but still felt she let her parents’ expectations down. Stunned all her classmates. And all of us who watched her grow up felt pain.
    Parents should encourage striving for achievement, but keep some realistic balance for themselves and their kid.
    Not sure the company trying to sell stuff understands the message

    • jmlindy422 August 24, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

      I have heard from a number of people who intense the pressure is on students who don’t live up to their parents’ expectations. It’s so tragic.

  4. Madame Weebles August 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    You’re the kind of mom everyone should have. There’s so much pressure on kids these days, it must be so hard for them. We (as a society, not the people here on your blog) put so much emphasis on being #1 that anything else is perceived as a colossal disappointment. Great is good enough, and even good is good enough, depending on what it is. All you can really ask for is that people try their best, as trite as that may sound.

    • jmlindy422 August 25, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      Aw, Madame. You’re so sweet! Doesn’t sound trite to ask the kids to try their best. The tricky part, for me, is figuring out what each of their bests looks like. I’ll finally get it down and they will have grown up and moved out.

  5. Mary Rayis August 29, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    We have 4 children, and just like snowflakes, no two of them are alike. We used to have a “straight A” rule, mostly to motivate our second born child to work harder. It didn’t really work. My oldest, a girl, didn’t need the rule. She pushed herself to excel because that’s who she is. Our son refused to bite. No amount of reward or punishment made him want to go for straight As. The best we can do is be role models for what we want in our children, not in terms of achievements but in terms of values and lifestyle. The rest is up to them. I am learning to let go and let my children be who they are. I just hope my freshman in college makes it through his first semester!

    • jmlindy422 August 29, 2012 at 7:52 am #

      Mary, you’re excellent parents. I bet he’ll do ok. I’m hoping Robin can get into a college at all. His grades are not stellar and, so far, he has no activities.

      • Mary Rayis August 29, 2012 at 8:05 am #

        There are colleges that have good support for students with ADHD. I think Grinnell in Iowa is one. I would look for schools that are “off the grid,” so to speak but that nurture the individual kid.

      • jmlindy422 August 29, 2012 at 9:19 am #

        Thanks, Mary. Grinnell might be off HIS grid. He wants to go to a city school; I think we’ll be doing COD for at least the first year.

  6. sukanya August 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    great post. something i struggle balancing though would like to believe that i have gotten a lot better in recognizing the costs that come along with it.

    • jmlindy422 August 30, 2012 at 7:52 am #

      I’ve been thinking about this balance thing for quite a while. I may write about it again, today.

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