Parental Pressure

This past week, I was fortunate to be trained to give an assessment, the Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised. My school administers it to all PreK3 students and any applicants for PreK4 and kindergarten. Although I may not ever be the examiner, I will need to know how to interpret this assessment’s results and share them with parents.

During the Gesell Institute‘s training, I realized that the information I gained about child development is crucial – not just for teachers, but for parents, as well. After being a mother for nearly eight years and being in the classroom almost three, I’ve figured out a lot of things, but some facts came as quite a surprise.

For instance, did you know you can do your child a disservice by teaching her to read too early? And the reason isn’t what you might initially think. Like everyone, I’ve been told that young brains are sponges, and this is absolutely true. But young bodies are still developing, and while a child’s brain might get that A is A and B is B, his eye muscles aren’t able to track from left to right (which we Westerners do when we read) until, on average, age five-and-a-half. In fact, you can usually tell a child who has learned to read too early because he turns his whole head in order to read across the page.

I can already hear outraged parents saying that their children learned to read on their own or that reading is a wonderful thing – we should promote it in any way possible. Number one, I know it’s possible that some kids just figure it out – my younger son certainly did, surprising us when he started reading the letters off my husband’s shirt a few months ago. It was not something we’d taught him at all. Number two, I absolutely agree that reading is wonderful and should be encouraged.

But could it also be possible that, underlying the desire to do what’s right for our kids by stimulating their little intellects and filling their minds with lots of valuable information, there’s something else at play here? Something a little selfish that you don’t want to admit?

I’m talking about peer pressure morphed into parental pressure. Peer pressure is an ugly thing when you’re thirteen, and your best friend makes a stupid decision and wants you along for the ride. It can either make you also do said stupid thing, or it can ostracize you from that friend when you say no. Either way, no fun, right?

But it doesn’t end when your zits disappear and your braces come off. It continues in fraternities and sororities, in the work place and across your neighbor’s fence. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mess, which can turn expensive if you’re susceptible to it. It can wreck marriages or throw a kink into what you thought was a lifelong friendship.

And if you’re a parent, you can drag your innocent children into it. You have the best of intentions, but you’re actually doing damage to the precious people that you love so dearly.

I’m not saying that I’m immune. Far from it. When my son Peter was a toddler, I was talking to a mom whose child was a little older. This other child knew the entire alphabet and most of the sounds the letters made. While impressed, I also felt guilty. My son could sort of sing the alphabet, but that was the extent of it. Knowing little about early education at the time, I thought that I was remiss as a parent because my own child’s brain wasn’t brimming with this knowledge. So I came up with a brilliant plan.

Peter had a cute, wooden train, each car holding a different letter. I decided that every time he mastered a new letter, I would put the next car on. He loved trains. It would be a fun reward for him. We never got past B. I tried computer games, but the only ones he liked had nothing to do with letters. I was frustrated when nothing seemed to work, and I assumed that there was something wrong with how I was trying to teach him. But there was hope: in preschool, the problem would be solved because he would be with a person who was qualified to teach him.

Except letters didn’t come any easier in preschool. By the end of his first year, he could almost always tell you how to spell his name (and when he couldn’t, it was because he mixed up the order of the middle letters), and sometimes he could even recognize those four letters when they weren’t in his name. Otherwise, he knew the letter O.

Although it took until he was almost seven to get the formal diagnosis, we now know that Peter is dyslexic. When he couldn’t learn his letters, it wasn’t his fault, wasn’t my fault, and wasn’t his teacher’s fault. I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I hadn’t tried to push him to do something at an age that was young for a normal child, not to mention unachievable for a dyslexic.

And reading isn’t the only place this happens.

Moms of babies, how often do you compare milestones with friends?

My child is seven months old and pulling up, but poor Susan – her baby is eight months old and hasn’t even crawled yet.

It’s hard not to feel that pride when your child does something that you think is Facebook status-worthy. I was thrilled that both of my boys walked at ten months, and I wasn’t shy about spreading the news. But that didn’t stop my elder son from having dyslexia. It didn’t teach my younger son how to behave.

One excellent resource that the Gesell Institute puts out is a booklet entitled “Ready or Not: Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten?” It points out that while the average child is able to walk at twelve months, the normal range is anywhere from eight-and-three-quarters to seventeen months. By two, all normal children can walk. Where is the relevance of my ten-month walkers now, when they’re seven and three?

Just as you don’t expect your newborn to get up and walk, you shouldn’t have ridiculous expectations for your child when it comes to reading. That’s not to say that exposure to words is bad or that certain children won’t start reading spontaneously. But it does mean that when it comes time to fill out college applications, the child who was seated in front of an encyclopedia at age two won’t have the upper hand over a child who learned to read in kindergarten.

So what are we parents to do? Are we not supposed to be proud of our children? Are we not supposed to encourage them when they show potential? A dad sees his four-year-old son chuck an acorn at a tree, and Dad immediately signs the kid up for the t-ball team (where he has just as much trouble tracking the ball flying toward him as he does reading without turning his head). A mom hears her two-year-old daughter singing along with the radio and starts looking for private music instruction.

Sometimes wonderful things happen. Star baseball players are discovered. Young musical prodigies attend Julliard and become famous concert pianists.

But sometimes Bobby complains that he doesn’t like t-ball, and then what do you do? It seems that parents are either reluctant to let him quit, thinking that he’ll get there one day if they keep pushing him, or they’re quick to involve him in another sport or activity because he’s got to be brilliant at something, right?

Maybe – and I know that I’m really going out on a limb here – maybe children need to be children. Maybe they are brilliant, yes, but that in no way means that they’ll miss their true calling unless they’re turned into little professionals right now. When they’re one or three or five or even ten, their true calling is to be a child. It’s to run around outside and catch lizards. Or to learn to ride a bike and even scrape their knees in the process. Or to have weekends that aren’t packed with activities, where they can bake cookies with their moms, help their dads wash the cars. Where the whole family can sit around and read a book together.

Through play, believe it or not, children learn. Play is their work. Putting puzzles together is a pre-cursor to reading. Building with large blocks can help them with math. Smooshing clay into pancakes or working it into balls with their little fingers develops fine muscles. Finger painting encourages hand-eye coordination, and cutting scrap paper with a pair of safety scissors teaches organization. (And I know, as a pre-school teacher, I might sound like I’m bashing my own job, but it’s nurturing and guided play that happens all day long with us.)

And reading… This one has a special place in my heart. Reading lessens discipline and self-esteem problems. It keeps kids in school, keeps them out of trouble (of course, good parenting is a big contributor, too, but then good parents often read to their children).

Since I’m such a big proponent of reading yet am getting onto parents for pressuring their kids to learn to read too early, what’s the solution? Read to your kids, of course. And not just moms – dads should be involved, too. Most nights, my husband reads a book like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear to our younger son, and I read a chapter book with our elder son. Right now, that chapter book happens to be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but at other times, it’s something easier, like Magic Tree House, that Peter can read to me.

Parents, quit pressuring your kids to be little adults. Quit expecting your schools to turn out mini physicists and doctors and poets by age four. And quit the boastful comparisons with other parents.

I don’t mean for everyone to immediately pull their kids from all ballet and music lessons, all gymnastics classes and tutoring sessions. As ever, you have to find the balance that’s right for your family. But that balance needs to include time to breathe, time to make a pile of leaves and jump on it, time to say yes to a trip to the park because you have plenty of time and aren’t stressed out about your packed schedule.

And when they’re tired and ready to rest, sit together and read a good book.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a list because, why not? Lists are cool. I wish I could take credit for it, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: my trainer from Gesell passed it out to everyone in our workshop, and I’m passing it on to you.

10 Reasons to Read to Your Child

  1. Because when you hold children and give them this attention, they know you love them.
  2. Because reading to children will encourage them to become readers.
  3. Because children’s books today are so good that they are fun even for adults.
  4. Because children’s books’ illustrations often rank with the best, giving children a life-long feeling for good art.
  5. Because books are one way of passing on your moral values to children. Readers know how to put themselves in others’ shoes.
  6. Because until they learn to read for themselves, they will think you are magic.
  7. Because every teacher and librarian they encounter will thank you.
  8. Because it’s nostalgic.
  9. Because for that short space of time, they will stay clean and quiet.
  10. Because, if you do, they may then let you read in peace.

And I’ll add my own #11: Because when the time is right (and it will be), they will read to you.

Overcoming Dyslexia: 10 Things You Should Know

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Right around two years ago, I realized there was a serious disconnect with my then-five-year-old son Peter. He was at the end of his second year of preschool, but this intelligent child could not learn his letters or their sounds. Today, I know that he has moderate dyslexia, and it’s been quite a journey. For my sweet boy, it’s a journey that he will continue to take for the rest of his life.

The teacher who tested Peter and helped formulate the blueprint of what the next few years will bring for him lent me her copy of Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. I recommend this book to all parents and teachers. Even after I knew that Peter had dyslexia, I still didn’t fully understand what it is – certainly more than mixing up letters, which is a common misconception.

There’s no way I can boil down every point, so I’ve chosen the ten that I found most important:

  1. Dyslexia Affects More People than You Think

In a 20-year study that followed 445 children from Connecticut, Shaywitz discovered “that reading disability affects approximately one child in five” (30). Some of the personal accounts that Shaywitz shares in her book are of bright kids who were left behind because they didn’t “qualify” as students who needed help reading. One was even unfortunate enough to attend a school in which the administration didn’t believe in dyslexia. There are many more children who can benefit from reading resources than are currently receiving help. If you think you don’t know anyone with dyslexia – think again. Especially if you’re a teacher, you likely have a child who desperately needs help right in your classroom.

  1. There’s a Reason Some Smart People Can’t Read

In her chapter entitled “Why Some Smart People Can’t Read,” Shaywitz introduces the Phonologic Model. In subsequent chapters, she breaks down why this model doesn’t work for dyslexics. They have what she repeatedly refers to as a “sea of strengths” – lots of pros surrounding one big con, the inability to decode phonemes (the smallest unit of speech). While good readers can quickly decode phonemes to make the sounds k, aaaa, and t become cat, dyslexics’ brains are not wired to do this efficiently. The frustrating part is that phonology is the lowest level of the language system, followed by semantics, syntax, and discourse. While semantics, syntax, and discourse are all intact in a dyslexic person’s brain, these higher-level abilities are trapped behind the wall of un-decodable phonemes because…

  1. Dyslexics’ Brains Are Wired Differently

There are now scientific tests that show just how a dyslexic’s person’s brain is wired. Starting in the chapter “Reading the Brain,” Shaywitz goes into great detail about how our brains decode words. A dyslexic person’s brain uses a different path – one that is not automatic and therefore much slower. The functional MRI (fMRI) is the test that shows exactly how dyslexic versus non-dyslexic people read. These tests aren’t necessary to diagnose dyslexia, but they prove that dyslexics aren’t missing a part of their brain, and they’re not brain damaged; they simply read in a different way than “good” readers.

  1. Training Kids Before School Age Helps

Unfortunately, dyslexia often goes undetected in children until they reach the third grade. At this point, they are very far behind because they are still struggling to sound out words, while their peers are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.

One way that we can save these kids so many years of frustration is by catching it sooner. Kids enrolled in preschool are ahead of the game (which is how we were able to catch Peter’s dyslexia so early), but even if you keep your children at home, helping them differentiate beginning, middle, and ending sounds of simple words (pig and pan, hen and pet, and hen and pin, respectively, are the examples Shaywitz uses) will not only help them when they learn to read, but it will also help to identify if there is a problem.

With Peter, while I could say a word like “bird” to his four- and five-year-old classmates, and they would hear b, rrr, and d, he might only be able to pick out the beginning or the ending sound – forget the middle. Peter’s dyslexia wouldn’t let him distinguish the different sounds.

  1. The Severity of Dyslexia Differs from Person to Person

While “one-quarter [to] one-half of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic,” the way in which dyslexia manifests itself differs from person to person (99). Shaywitz writes that “the ultimate expression of dyslexia depends on an interaction between a child’s genetic endowment and his environment.” So if your child is dyslexic, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Continue to read aloud to him at home; expose her to as much language as you can. This particularly helps dyslexic children develop larger vocabularies because they will not read and pick up new words as quickly as their classmates who can read fluently.

  1. Dyslexics Have High IQs

High IQ’s and difficulty in reading just don’t seem to correlate, but that’s exactly what happens with a dyslexic person. In fact, dyslexic people are often amazing problem solvers; their dyslexia forces them to be creative in order to read, and they carry this skill into other areas of life.

Dyslexia should never discourage someone from pursuing his or her dream. The last chapter of Overcoming Dyslexia is devoted to the personal accounts of highly successful people, such as author John Irving, American businessman and finance expert Charles Schwab, former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, and a number of others. These men and women struggled in school and failed entrance exams that could have kept them from getting higher education – yet they persevered and proved that a reading problem would not force them to give up on their dreams.

  1. Retention Does Not Help Dyslexic Children

While retention is sometimes helpful for other reasons, dyslexia should not be one of them. Not only does holding a child back a year in school avoid the problem (which is decoding words), but it can also be a psychological and emotional hindrance.

Ignoring the problem is just as bad. Waiting a month or a year to see if the problem straightens itself out only robs your child of much-needed help. When I first thought that Peter might have a problem, I hoped that a little tutoring over the summer would solve it. But that tutoring didn’t address his specific issue, and the frustration we both faced the first few weeks of his kindergarten year were enough to make me wish I’d had him tested sooner.

  1. Common Indicators of Dyslexia
  • Delay in Speech While children typically start saying words by one year and phrases by 18 to 24 months, a delay could indicate dyslexia.
  • Trouble with Pronunciation This can manifest itself as baby talk, the right syllables pronounced in the wrong order, or whole syllables (such as the beginning of words) not being pronounced at all.
  • Inability to Rhyme Because they have a hard time separating phonemes, dyslexics may not be able to ascertain what rhymes and what doesn’t because they are not able to distinguish what the last sound of a word is.
  • Talking Around a Word If your child is a regular Mrs. Malaprop, that’s another indicator. Two examples that Shaywitz uses are lotion used in place of ocean and tornado used in place of volcano. The children who made these mistakes knew exactly what they were trying to say, but they simply could not recall the proper word. (This can be very embarrassing in dyslexic adults when speaking publicly.)
  • Difficulty in Learning the Alphabet They may be able to sing their ABC’s, but when shown the actual symbols that match the sounds, dyslexics may not be able to identify them.
  • Inability to Learn by Rote While dyslexics generally have strong math skills, when it comes to rote memorization of times tables, they may suddenly have trouble. The same goes for memorizing words that don’t follow the rules, people’s names, place names, and even phone numbers. I wondered, since dyslexia is a phoneme problem, why dyslexic people often dial the wrong phone number – especially since they’re often so good at math. It’s not because they can’t see the difference between the numbers but because those seven numbers seem random. There was no logical way to arrive at them (as in the answer to a math problem).
  • Inability to Focus While Reading Especially in a noisy classroom or study hall, a dyslexic person may not be able to complete a homework task because she needs quiet to be able to concentrate. Dyslexics use a lot more brain power to get the job done, so it’s harder for them to focus.
  • Discomfort When Reading Aloud Some kids will act out or fake being sick when asked to read aloud because it’s so uncomfortable for them. They may even be misjudged as ADHD by a parent or teacher, but the problem here isn’t inattention but discomfort. Be sensitive to dyslexic people when they ask not to read aloud.
  • Misspelling Even if a dyslexic person is able to read difficult words, do not expect him to spell those same words from memory. In the same manner, if shown a new word out of context, he may not be able to read it, even if it seems simple to a non-dyslexic person.
  • Terrible Handwriting This is another tell-tale characteristic of many dyslexics. The word processor is the dyslexic person’s best friend.

A dyslexic person may exhibit only a few of the above – or may have other indicators not mentioned. But if your child or someone you know shows a number of these, it would be prudent to have him or her tested for dyslexia.

  1. Common Strengths of Dyslexic People

In addition to the individual “sea of strengths” that dyslexic people have, there are common strengths that most dyslexic people share. Many dyslexic children fly under the radar because they are extraordinary auditory learners. They can hear a passage read aloud and memorize it, therefore making their teachers believe they’re reading. They are also usually skilled at math, and they are very creative. (Now, don’t worry if your child doesn’t fit this model 100%. Peter is a poor auditory learner, but kinesthetically, he’s off the charts. And I know some dyslexics who also aren’t skilled at math.)

What marks dyslexics as different than other poor readers is their reading comprehension skills, which are intact. Let them hear a book (instead of making them struggle with decoding all those words), and then open a discussion with them, and you will find that they understand the text just as well (or better) than a fluent reader. When dyslexics are not hindered by people who misjudge them, they are able to prove themselves just as capable as fluent readers, and many successful dyslexics wouldn’t have it any other way because they can easily think outside the box, unlike colleagues who never had to struggle to read.

  1. How to Help Dyslexic People in School and Beyond

The Orton-Gillingham method of scientifically-based instruction is what Shaywitz recommends for dyslexic children. Although she lists many different ways in which parents can help their dyslexic children at home, having one-on-one instruction with a tutor who is trained in this systematic and structured method is what really helps. (Peter’s tutor uses the Barton program, which has been very beneficial to him.)

There’s also good news for dyslexic adults who have gone undiagnosed: there are programs for adult literacy, and although they do require a commitment of time, they also produce dividends that improve quality of life. Many undiagnosed adults either flunk or drop out of school and have few options for employment because of their inability to read. It’s not that they’re unintelligent, just that they were never given the proper instruction for the way that their brains are wired.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) of Princeton, New Jersey provides audio copies of books, so dyslexics can listen to their material and follow along with the hard copy. Requesting more time and a quiet room for multiple choice exams is also a must, although oral or essay tests are preferable. (As Shaywitz and so many others have pointed out, these multiple choice tests really only prove how proficient people are at test-taking.) Shaywitz lists a number of computer programs that help dyslexics, as well as study tips. In a world that is not very friendly to dyslexics, there are still ways in which they can excel.

In Conclusion

There are so many more points that I wish I could list, but this post is already very long. Please, if any of this rings true for your child or someone you know, get the book! It’s science-based, and one of the many case studies may remind you of someone you know. I know the first one I read almost made me cry because it sounded so much like my son and reminded me of his early struggles.

The great news is that there is help. As I said, Peter is being tutored in an Orton-Gillingham program, Barton. After not quite five months, his reading has improved more than my husband and I ever thought possible. Over the summer, I saw that one of his friends was reading at a level two, and Peter struggled to get through “My First” books. Now, he can pick up a level two or even books that aren’t leveled readers.

Last week, we took turns reading a Magic Tree House book aloud – Peter was even the one who volunteered to read. About halfway through a chapter, he said, “Chapter books are fun!” I couldn’t agree more, buddy.

“He Has a Tutor? But I Thought He Was an Honors Student!”

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.

Dyslexia – A Mere Stumbling Block on the Path to Book Creation

“Peter is still getting his M’s and W’s mixed up.”

This was Peter’s kindergarten teacher four months ago. Peter is six. He should have known all of his letters a year ago. In fact, he did. So why the sudden trouble with these two? I was a bit disappointed when she told me, but I wasn’t surprised.

Peter has dyslexia. On top of that, his working memory does not function at 100%, making it difficult for him to retain everything we do to help him overcome his learning hurdles. It’s better than it was. This time last year, his working memory only functioned at about 20%, and he’s in an intensive program that’s helping, but it’s still a struggle.

So Peter and I practiced with M and W flashcards, and right about the time he got those two letters down, he slid back again and started having trouble with B and D. Peter is aware that he has a hard time reading. He knows his friends read books a couple levels beyond his capabilities. He groans whenever I make him read or do flashcards. Sometimes I’ll give him a night off and just read a book to him. The poor kid. Up until he had to start reading them himself, he had a love-love relationship with books.

I focus on Peter’s strengths. He’s good at math. He’s athletic. He can build anything, loves making inventions, and is very creative. But at the same time, I don’t want him to give up on reading, to think that it’s something a lot of people can do but is unattainable for him.

Then he happened to be watching the Disney Channel when Bella Thorne’s TTI came on. TTI’s (or “The Time I…”) are clips about some of the actors in Disney’s shows. I hadn’t seen Bella Thorne’s TTI since Peter was diagnosed.

Why does Bella Thorne’s particular TTI matter? Well, because she has dyslexia. She started talking about why reading was a challenge, and how she mixed up B and D and M and W. Peter turned to me, eyes alight, and said, “Hey! That’s just like me!”

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

I made sure to point out to him that she can read now, even though it’s a challenge.

I know it boggles Peter’s mind that I write. When I pulled my children’s book Hero out of mothballs earlier this year, I decided to involve Peter by using him as a first reader. I read it to him while he sat with me at my computer, looking at a screen with a bunch of symbols that he struggled to make sense of. With no illustrations to guide him, he didn’t connect with the story. I had to read passages twice and ask him questions about them to make them stick.

And then it hit me: Peter can draw. He may struggle to read Hero, but I knew if he helped illustrate it, he’d have some ownership. Even with dyslexia, he could still be a part of the book creation process.

Peter learning cursive

Peter learning cursive

If you’re a regular reader, you know that we did it (and you can read about it here). Peter is half-shy, half-proud when he helps me deliver a book. Even though he’s quick to say that it’s too tough for him to read (yet), he loves that his name is on the cover, that it’s our book. He even asked me to teach him cursive, so he can sign the inside cover.

Starting in the fall, I’m going to talk to elementary school students about writing and illustrating a picture book. I’m excited for them to know that a regular mom can make children’s books, but I’m even more excited to encourage them by telling Peter’s story. Books are for everyone – for bookworms like me, those who struggle like Peter, and everyone in between.

Don’t forget, through July 26th, all of my proceeds from Hero are going to WSB’s Care-a-Thon to benefit the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Click here for all the details, including where you can buy Hero in Northeast Florida. You can also get yours from Amazon.com, or message me for a signed copy.

Sugar-Coated Broccoli Just Tastes Like Really Nasty Broccoli

English: Trophy case at Theodore Roosevelt Hig...

Trophy case at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been toying with the idea of addressing a particular issue for a few months now, but I never quite knew how to approach it. And then this week, almost as if giving me permission, I read Matt Walsh’s blog and figured it was time.

Early in his post, Walsh talks about how we give trophies for everything now, especially mediocrity. I suppose that things have been going that way since I was a kid, although I was never a recipient of the “showing up” award. The first trophy I received (one of very few) was when I was fourteen, and it took me years to achieve it. I felt underachieved, indeed, when I started dating my husband because his bedroom’s shelves were filled with trophies he’d earned for his athletic prowess.

But I don’t mind my lack of accolades. Thomas and I know that we’re worthwhile people without all that. Besides, it’s better than doing the opposite and displaying junk of no value. I know someone who wanted to frame her husband’s military discharge papers. While not a dishonorable discharge, neither was it an honorable one. Summed up, it was basically: “You served your time. Thanks and good-bye.” Was that something to be proud of and display in a place of prominence?

And while I have no problem saying these things about myself and other people, I can completely understand why the situation changes when you throw your own kids into the mix. I certainly want to applaud my children’s achievements.

But what if they don’t have any? What if they do nothing exceptional, yet are surrounded by kids that do? Wouldn’t it help their feelings, give them a morale boost, to just give them a little something for showing up?

It’s situations like this that make it very easy for people without kids to criticize those who do. But since I’m in that inner circle now, I can safely criticize – and hold myself accountable at the same time.

Good parents (notice I didn’t say “all” parents) are forced to learn a whole new meaning of sacrifice and responsibility, and still there are no guarantees. The child who receives the best education may never get the big-paying job. The child who starts taking music lessons as a toddler may never get into Julliard. The child who is involved in sports from the age of four may never win a single trophy, and it’s a struggle to be the parent and just watch this happen.

My husband is a natural athlete and is one of those kinds of people who could nap through school and still pass. I was an overachiever and earned academic scholarships without even trying in college. Neither of us had to study very hard. When I was pregnant with our first son, we focused on reading books that would help us raise a healthy and conscientious child. We weren’t worried about his academic skills. I mean, look at us. It was in the bag, baby.

Peter started school when he was three, and I put him in two days a week. I daydreamed about my first parent-teacher conference, during which his teacher would tell me that he was her brightest star, knew all of his letters, and needed a bit more of a challenge than pre-school.

Instead, she shared his assessment results, and they were on the low side of average. Nothing special, not to mention there were certain measures I needed to take to help him catch up with the other kids, some of which were close to a year younger. His behavior was fine, of course, and I know I should have been thrilled with that. But I felt distinctly like I’d done something wrong.

The next year, when he was in pre-kindergarten full-time, his teachers were concerned that he didn’t know all his letters. I knew, with a new baby, that I hadn’t been as diligent as I should, so we pulled out the flashcards and got to work. To my dismay, as soon as Peter mastered a letter that caused him trouble, he would lose a letter that had never been a problem. Like there was a file cabinet in his brain that could only hold so much.

Looking back over Peter’s early toddler years, I can see the pattern because I now know what is wrong. I would ask him to do a couple simple tasks, and he would only do one. I would get frustrated when he couldn’t name a letter that we’d just gone over. This otherwise compliant and well-behaved kid caused us both trouble when it came to following directions and academics. Extra tutoring over the summer before he started kindergarten did little to help, so I wasn’t surprised when his reading assessment at the beginning of the year placed him as one of the worst readers.

When my husband and I went for the parent-teacher conference this year, it was with no illusions. I was prepared to apologize for falling down on my most important job but was met with empathy and compassion and a great deal of love from Peter’s two teachers. What was obvious to everyone in the room was that there was a problem, but it was something we could fix, since we cared enough to face it.

My husband comes from a long line of dyslexic men, but it skipped right over him and landed on Peter instead. But the problem goes deeper than that. Peter’s working memory – what helps him remember to do two or more simple tasks at a time, among other things – only functions at about twenty percent of what is normal in a kid his age. The kid can remember trips we took when he was two, can build almost anything with blocks, and has a working vocabulary much more sophisticated than his six years, so I never would have realized it without a professional diagnosis. And there was also absolutely nothing I could have done to change this. In fact, I could have continued being in denial and berated him for being lazy, just perpetuating the problem.

So what in the world does this have to do with sugar-coated broccoli? I’m not really picking on broccoli in particular. I mean, it’s obviously a very nutritious food, and although I don’t care for it raw, I love it roasted. But sweeten it up, disguise it under a layer of sugar, and – yuck. But isn’t this what our society does in so many ways?

In the name of protection, we sugar-coat things for our kids and raise them to be adults who are ill-equipped to deal with reality. Congrats, you showed up. Think about how anticlimactic the Super Bowl would be if the losing team were also showered with confetti, awarded a trophy, and gave rings to every player? They worked hard to get there, which in itself is a reward, but they’re not the ultimate winners.

I’m not saying that we should go out of our way to suppress kids, to not give them incentives to improve and perform their best. I’m also not saying that they aren’t special. Scientifically speaking, our DNA proves that each of us is unique, and people are certainly more than a string of genetic code. But none of them is God’s gift to mankind, and to treat them as if they are does them a gross disservice.

There’s a fine line we have to walk, and although it’s difficult to do so, if we are realistic and honest about our children’s limitations and strengths, we can help them survive and even thrive in an otherwise unfair and cruel world.

At six, Peter knows that he has trouble reading and doing some of the tasks that come easily to his friends. He also knows that he’s getting help but that there are other areas in which he needs no help at all. He also has an inkling that it’s a hard world, but I hope that I am raising a person who can help brighten it, even if he mixes up his M’s and W’s.

It’s hard to admit that one of the most precious people in my world has a problem. But, although his story is nowhere near it’s end, it is moving toward a happy ending as we re-train his brain. I hope this gives other parents permission to face tough realities instead of turning a blind eye and continuing to reward average-ness and even serious issues. In Peter’s case, his rewards mark his progress toward realizing his full potential. Find your child’s strengths, and build them up to bolster the weaknesses. While a spoonful of sugar makes a great song, it does nothing to solve real problems.

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