Many more years ago than I can believe, my older son was having trouble learning to read. It was clear that he was upset about this because he was actually pretending to read. He would take an adult book out of the bookshelf, turn the pages and say, “I read that book.”
We made an appointment for an evaluation by a learning specialist and now I was faced with the task of telling my son about it. I was filled with trepidation. How could I suggest that he had a problem? Wouldn’t that make him feel worse about himself than he already did? Gathering my courage, at an appropriate moment I told him that I knew that reading was hard for him and that we were going to find someone who would help him learn.
I will never forget the expression on his face. He threw his arms around me and looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. He was relieved that someone understood the difficulty he was having and would help him. He no longer had to pretend, and to deal with this alone.
It was our good fortune to have found Katrina deHirsch, a pioneer in the area of learning disabilities, dyslexia in particular. She said something I also have never forgotten and have repeated to many parents: “Childhood is the one time we’re made to do things we’re not good at.” She was thinking that later on the typewriter would be a replacement for poor handwriting – and that was before any idea of the changes the computer would bring.
But the real lesson I learned was the fallacy of thinking we are somehow protecting our children by hiding, or avoiding things with which they may be struggling. When we pretend along with them that nothing is wrong, an unintended message is that this is so bad we have to hide it. Or that it is a failure that disappoints us and can’t be acknowledged. In the same way, offering false reassurance in effect denies that there is a problem, confirming the opposite for a child – that the problem is too serious to talk about.
Think of it this way, if you try a new recipe and it is a disaster, does it help or make you feel worse to have the guests tell you it was delicious? Wouldn’t it be of greater help if a good friend who was there told you the next day what went wrong, and how to fix it? Or if you make a mistake at work and try to cover it up instead of getting help with what you don’t know, isn’t it likely you will make the same mistake again, and start to feel incompetent?
We sometimes act as if children don’t know that something is giving them trouble, and that talking about it will be a great blow. In fact children are only too aware when there is something they can’t do that others around them seem to be doing with ease. They know something is wrong but don’t know what it is. Sometimes they develop strategies to deal with what they can’t do, like becoming disruptive or finding ways to avoid certain situations. This can make matters worse because then their avoidant behavior begins to seem like the problem while the real problem causing the behavior is still not addressed.
Children may find different things challenging at different stages of their development. A familiar example is the reaction some children have to birthday parties – even their own. Some children become upset, want to leave, not want mom or dad to leave, or cling to either parent without joining the activities at the party. Too often it is the clinging behavior, or not joining in that is seen as the problem rather than a child being overwhelmed by the crowd, noise, lack of structure or general rough and tumble atmosphere. The focus becomes, “Why can’t my child separate?” rather than what does he find hard in this situation and how can I help.
When we talk to children in a real way, about a real situation, we accomplish a number of things. First of all, we show that we understand what he or she is experiencing. That in itself is reassuring, because children themselves often don’t understand what is wrong, which is part of what makes it so upsetting to them.
More important still, if we understand, then maybe we can help them do something about a problem. It no longer seems so ominous. Besides, when we are accepting of a difficulty they are having, that means it is not terrible if it is hard to do something. Everyone finds something hard! Birthday parties are hard, and mom can stay if needed until they are no longer so overwhelming.
Whether the difficulty is one that needs special help, or just the help of a parent’s support, talking about it in a real and accepting way offers reassurance that is real. And that is the first step in solving the problem.