Growing up in Toronto, I could have seemed like an ordinary kid. But there was something that made me sharply stand out.
I stuttered. A lot.
It began when I was three years old. My parents were told to ignore it – as “merely a stage in a child’s speech development,” speech experts would say, and cite the statistics that most children grow out of it.
But I didn’t grow out of it. In fact, it only got worse.
Not only was it daunting for me to speak up in class or introduce myself to new friends, but I would often get laughed at when I could not even say my own name or the simple word “hello.”
My mom tried to give me positive encouragement. “Moe,” she would tell me, “you have so much going for you…”
But invariably, I would respond that it was all worthless if I couldn’t speak.
I was miserable. I constantly wondered to myself: What would life have in store for me? How would I ever pass a job interview? What girl would want to marry me? What will I sound like when reading bedtime stories to my kids?
After numerous failed attempts to find a speech therapist who fit my needs, a match was finally made. A dozen years of therapy helped, enabling me to function on a daily basis – some days more, some days less. My therapy often consisted of fabricating real-life circumstances while in the stutter-friendly comfort zone of my therapist’s office. We made phone calls and visited stores together, practising words with which I had difficulty. It gave me hope of normalcy, and I felt accepted, regardless of how my words were expressed.
But I never embraced or fully accepted my stutter. I worried it might be my companion forever. I could not come to terms with the fact that my awkward, embarrassing and inhibiting speech habits might accompany me through life.
Fast forward to today.
I have been flown around across Canada, the United States, central Europe and Australia to lecture to Jewish education programs. I received an MBA from Tel Aviv University, worked at Deloitte as a strategy consultant and trained senior-level executives on their presentation skills. These days, I work at a cool start-up and mentor entrepreneurs at a technology accelerator. I live in Israel, with my wife and children.
Indeed, I am living my dream. But what happened?
Therapy helped. My supportive family helped, too. But the ultimate turning point happened when I began to accept my stutter. No longer did I have to reject it or hide from it – it was simply a part of who I was. We all have our challenges – stuttering was mine. It was finally time to live.
Thus began my journey to discover my inner voice.
Years later, I met a married couple who had just discovered their three-year-old daughter had developed a stutter. I advised them as follows:
As young as your daughter may be, she can pick up on the fact that her parents are extremely worried about her newly developed speech pattern. As such, she will probably become hesitant to speak up because she won’t want to scare you. It is easier for her to keep her mouth closed than to watch your panicked facial expressions when she can’t seem to get her words out.
The more she chooses not to speak, the more anxiety she will build around speaking. Each time she decides that it is safer to not risk the stutter, she, in effect, is subconsciously developing a mental block against expressing those words.
You must create a “safe” environment for her. She must feel that you unconditionally love her and will not be upset or judge her if she begins to stutter. You and your husband must become comfortable with the fact that your daughter may stutter for the rest of her life. And it is OK.
The ball is in your court. The more accepting you become, the less your daughter will feel as though you are trying to change her.
Ironically, by becoming comfortable with the fact that your daughter may stutter permanently, you are providing her with the best chance to overcome it. The safe haven of your home will hopefully help her develop a strong self-confidence. You will thereby significantly increase the probability that your daughter’s stutter will be but a blip on her early-childhood radar screen.
Please note, though, that you cannot expect her to overcome it. That is, in effect, the opposite of true acceptance of her stutter. She will sniff out your insincerity. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you and your husband have an important conversation, whereby you recognize the limit of control you hold over every aspect of your daughter’s stutter.
I am confident that you will see results. Because even if she does not stop stuttering, your relationship with your daughter will no longer be one of deflated hopes and frustration, but rather one of idyllic parental love and unwavering support. This can only be beneficial for all three of you.
I was excited to hear that this little girl’s stutter faded away the following year. But it was even more powerful to receive the feedback that my advice was both novel and refreshing. I was lauded for my unique approach to stuttering, and praised for having such a healthy attitude. That was meaningful to me, especially after years of frustration and anger over my own stuttering.
But it also irked me. Why had this family not heard this advice from others? Was my approach that unique? And then I realized that what I was saying didn’t only apply to stuttering.
We all face our own unique adversity and choose our response. It is not about conquering our challenges, but rather about embracing them, improving our self-esteem, and leading happier, more meaningful lives as a result.
As American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Moe Mernick was born and raised in Toronto. He recently made aliyah with his wife and children, and works for a high-tech startup in Tel Aviv. www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-gift-of-stuttering/