This is a line that I heard in a commercial for a local tutoring center earlier this week. I’d seen the commercial before, but I guess it had been a while. Since, let’s say, my own son, Peter, started going to a tutor after school. Whereas I never gave this commercial a second thought before, it really bothers me now.
Of course, I’m glad that the tutoring center is there, doing what it’s doing to help kids. What bothers me is that it has to fight the assumption that smart kids couldn’t possibly need to be tutored.
And I have to admit, I used to be one of the parents this statement targets. I’m an overachiever. I skipped the 8th grade. I got my BA when I was 20. While I’m not one of these geniuses who gets a PhD at 15, if I ever got a B, that meant I was doing poorly. I was always embarrassed for the kids who tripped over words when we had to read aloud. I often thought they were stupid. I mean, how hard is it to read?
After Thomas and I admitted that, despite all our efforts, Peter needed help, we saw a child psychologist. We answered all of the usual questions, like if I had a normal pregnancy, if he often gets distracted, if he can keep eye contact, etc., etc. I could see that the answers to many of these questions could point to children with attention deficit problems, but our answers did not lead down that path at all. When we got done, the doctor asked us why we’d come to see him.
It was because Peter was almost six, and he still couldn’t identify all of his letters. He’d been in preschool two days a week for one year and five days a week for another. Yet kids who’d never had any kind of schooling before kindergarten were already running circles around him. They knew the alphabet and all the sounds that the different letters made. What was wrong with my child? I felt like I’d completely failed as a mother.
It was after Peter’s diagnosis that, with a shock, Thomas and I realized that his was an inherited problem. Neither of us has a learning disability, but the more we asked around, the more we realized that people in Thomas’s family have the same problem – and have been trying to cope with it all of their lives. Many hate to read because the task of decoding words is just so difficult.
I’m a reader. I carry at least one book with me everywhere. I didn’t want my child to grow up to hate books. It didn’t help that other well-meaning parents would say, “Did you hear about So-and-So? She’s being tested today. I knew something was wrong with her.” Oh the horror of being tested! I was embarrassed to say that Peter had been through the same battery of tests.
But I got over it soon enough. The problem wasn’t anything to do with how we’d parented our child. It’s all genetics. But even if it weren’t something he’d been born with, I still couldn’t just ignore the problem. When you’re a parent, your ultimate job is to help your child, and sometimes that means – gasp! – hiring a tutor.
Unfortunately, many parents of dyslexic children continue to ignore the problem, or sometimes they don’t even know it exists. This is because most dyslexic children have an extraordinary auditory capacity and are able to memorize, skating by for years when they could really use some one-on-one help.
In Peter’s case, his weakest area of learning is auditory, and he also has a deficient working memory. For years, I got mad at him for only completing one task, when I would ask him to do two or three. Imagine how terrible I felt when I realized he simply couldn’t complete more than one task because couldn’t remember what I’d asked. But this additional problem carried with it a huge advantage: I knew something was wrong much earlier than most parents, and we were able to get him help.
As soon as Peter was diagnosed, some people told us how shocked they were that he has a problem. He talked early and well. He’s a great problem solver and extremely creative. And while letters are his nemesis, he excels at math. Many of these are common traits among dyslexic people, some of them developed in order to survive in a world that is not very dyslexia-friendly.
One good thing, though, was that I was no longer afraid to talk about it. I started asking around about tutors and tutoring centers, and parents came out of the woodwork. Parents who do not have the mistaken idea that tutoring equals stupidity.
The improvement, the confidence in my child, has been amazing to watch. I am so grateful for the people in my life who have helped Peter, who continue to point out his great strengths (math and anything art-related). I am a little confused, however, by the people who continue to insist that I shouldn’t talk about Peter’s learning disabilities. Like it’s a shameful venereal disease or something. The more Peter understands about what we’re doing for him, the more compliant he is. He loves books and wants to be able to read them fluently. He knows that his tutoring will help him achieve this, and he also knows how to defend himself, if ever a kid (like I used to be) dares to make fun of him.
Sadly, many children are not diagnosed until the third grade or beyond. Many people slide through until adulthood and struggle all their lives with no help. If you are a parent or a teacher, pay attention. I hope your kids don’t have any problems, but if they do, don’t do them the disservice of acting like they can’t achieve great things if they need a tutor.
For further resources, check out Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. and Barton Reading & Spelling System.
All of my kids were tested — for Gifted and for all kinds of learning disabilities. For one of them, I had to decide whether being labeled “learning disabled” was more or less of a stigma than being labeled “emotionally handicapped.” This child was also Gifted. That doesn’t rule out other problems. The important thing is to get them the help they need to make the most of the talents (and “problems”) they are given.
Exactly! Some of the most gifted children have some sort of handicap, and they’re often overlooked. Labels harm and can discourage parents from seeking the help they need.