Grown-Up Reads

Tips & Advice

Parenting a Dyslexic Child Takes Both Science and Faith

by Ellen O'Donnell

Photo credit: danchooalex, E+ Collection/Getty Images

When my now 9-year-old son Jonah was in preschool, he loved to build impressively tall and precarious towers and mix “experiments” of flour, water, leaves, string, and thumbtacks. By kindergarten, he had a rich vocabulary and was always moving, talking, and singing. We once went out to the garage to find he had built a table out of firewood and stray nails. Yet, he struggled to learn his letters. He often mixed up, forgot, or made up words. Jonah is going into fourth grade now, and we’ve built up quite a family dictionary. We still call the machine he and his big brother put together from parts this past winter a “puterator,” even though Jonah can now pronounce the word “computer.”

When Jonah was in the first grade, we sat across from the reading specialist at our public school as she told us, in her most soothing teacher voice, all the wonderful things she was doing with him to boost his letter and word knowledge. They were writing on paper on top of sandpaper so he could feel how words were spelled. They were stomping out the letters “t-h-e spells the!” on the stairs to help him recognize the simplest of words without having to sound it out. As a child psychologist who regularly tests kids for learning disabilities, gives diagnoses, and makes treatment recommendations, I knew this was best practice, and Jonah was getting exactly what he needed. I also knew, without anyone having said the word, that Jonah probably had dyslexia.

I told the reading specialist, “If I was wearing my psychologist hat, I would be telling my parent self that it’s too soon to tell if this is dyslexia, or just a kid slower to learn to read. There is a huge range in reading ability from kids who don’t know all their letters yet (Jonah) to kids reading Harry Potter on their own. He’s getting exactly what he needs, and we just have to watch closely and wait and see. Try not to worry too much.” She told me I was giving myself excellent advice. My next question was, “How do I follow it?”

Psychology tells us that parents often project their own needs and wants onto their children, seeing their child’s successes and failures (academic and otherwise) as their own … or at least as a reflection on them as a parent. We call this ego-involvement, and I admit to doing a bit of that. But I think, more often than not, what parents really project onto their kids are our own experiences. We worry that they will struggle, either by being too much like us — or not enough.

As the daughter of two teachers, education was a family value. I was a strong student and reader, and school not only came easy for me, but was a path up and out. Rather than a source of stress like it often is for Jonah, reading was a relief from whatever stresses were in my real world. I worry that Jonah will grow to avoid reading and learning, and it will affect his future, while my husband, who was not much of a student, worries Jonah may flounder for too long and lose confidence in himself along the way to finding his own talents and passion. Worry is something I know well.

Thankfully, there’s something else I know and have experience in: Faith. Stay with me.

Photo credit: danchooalex, E+ Collection/Getty Images

I grew up Catholic, and as an adult found my way to a more progressive Christianity — one that embraces civil rights for the LGBTQ community, is serious about environmental stewardship, and works to relieve the suffering brought about by poverty, racism, and income inequality. My faith also gives me a “why” to the “how” of science and psychology. None of us likes to see our kids struggle. Why do they have to?

My faith tells me that life isn’t really meant to be easy. Oftentimes, the best things in our lives come as much from struggle as success. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t all that easy to be a nerdy bookworm growing up. Books were as much an escape for me from teasing and loneliness as from anything else. School may have been easy for me, but plenty of other things weren’t. To this day, you don’t want me on your team, no matter the sport. Jonah on the other hand gets chosen for every team.

Struggle is the shadow side of success. Struggle is also where we find the God I believe in. My God is not sitting on a throne in the sky bestowing favors on some and strife on others. My God is the One we find in and through struggle, and helps people survive and thrive through challenges much greater than dyslexia. My faith also teaches me that reading ability, Ivy League degrees, and even financial stability are not true measures of success.

Psychology doesn’t talk much about faith, and popular parenting books even less. Yet, there is good evidence that spirituality makes kids more resilient, and that children are inherently spiritual. When it comes to parenting, science and spirituality are not at odds with each other. My kids are going to have their own struggles and successes. Maybe the best thing I can do is find a way to help them navigate their own faith to get through, while pulling on mine to get me through.

This summer Jonah went to a camp for kids with dyslexia. The official diagnosis was confirmed mid-way through his third grade year. Though many kids easily learn how to read, there are still a good number of students (about one in five to be exact) who need phonics based instruction in reading because, like Jonah, they have dyslexia. At camp, he got the best evidence-based interventions. Even more important to me, he grew in confidence, in a place surrounded by learners like him and in a community that emphasizes what are known as the “dyslexic strengths,” which range from creativity to seeing the bigger picture.

Yet, it’s not the science that helps me sleep at night, or even the fact that we are lucky enough to have access to the best programs. It’s my faith that my unique-in-all-the-world child is part of something much bigger, and that if we stay connected to that and to each other, he really will be okay. It’s my faith that helps me to parent him with a focus on truer measures of success, to be the kind of person who will make the world better: a kind, empathic, grounded person who knows the world does not revolve around, nor stop for, him.