Growing Up “Different:” Should We Always Fix What’s Hard?

Every day I work with children who are defined by our educational culture as “different.” Most don’t appear particularly unusual out and about in their community, but in school they aren’t considered “typical.”

These differences can make parents feel anxious and uncomfortable, long before our children are aware of their so-called challenges. Often we are encouraged and advised to get services for our kids to “fix” what is weak. But is that always the best course of action?

“Different.” Good or Bad? A Personal Story

The concept of learning disabilities and attentional disorders is relatively new. When I went to school in the 1970s and 80s there wasn’t much talk of these disorders. Yes, there were kids who struggled in school, but not many received special education unless their difference was profound and obvious.

I was a “different” learner. Today I probably would be diagnosed with a math or nonverbal learning disability. Even today nonverbal work is very challenging for me and I have a rudimentary grasp of mathematical concepts. I received no school support and I definitely had academic and social challenges that accompanied my differences.

My weaknesses were not remediated. I didn’t receive any extra help or accommodations and I was left with three choices: 1. Give up on the hard stuff, 2. Think I was stupid, or 3. Achieve in the places I could be successful.

I thank my parents for guiding me constantly to choice #3. Every day I wanted to do #1 and when I felt completely defeated I turned to #2, but my parents never let me sit there and worry about what I couldn’t do, instead turning me to grow in places where I excelled. This meant I spent lots of time reading, writing, singing, dancing and being a good friend. My attuned empathy and social skills now allow me to be a very good psychologist. And I hire people to do the hard math for me in my business :).

My weaknesses never defined me. I knew what was hard and what wasn’t. I knew I could never pass an AP Calculus class. I knew graduate statistics was going to be a nightmare, no matter how hard I studied. I can’t do puzzles without getting dizzy. Parallel parking is a real challenge for me, so I pay for parking in the city. I still don’t always know my left from my right.  There isn’t anything I can do about those things. I could study Left-Right, Left-Right, Left-Right, but that would get in the way of me writing this blog post, seeing my clients, playing with my son. So I make the “L” with my hand. Every time.

These differences aren’t “good” or “bad.” They just are. It is how my brain works. Writing comes easy. Playing video games not so much. And that is ok.

Difference and Parenting: Should we do all we can to fix the “problem”?

Despite all of the testing and special education we now offer our children (which is neither good nor bad), we can learn a bit from the parenting models of the past.

Difference should not define your child. And if you want your child to be a successful adult, their difference CAN not define them.

Sometimes we get lost in the weeds of looking for and “fixing” our differences. Initially, this sounds like a good thing to do. We have more resources and opportunities now to suss out the problems and do something to address them.

But when we invest lots of time, money and focus fixing a weakness, we aren’t giving all of that energy toward enhancing our children’s strengths and gifts. I’m not sure how life would be different for me if I spent 3 hours a week with a math tutor, rather than 3 hours a week singing on stage all over the Boston area. I do know that singing gave me so much to feel good about and proud of and that helped me be a more confident adult.

As parents we walk a fine line between giving our children all out support for their weakness vs fully supporting growth in areas of strength.  Of course, some children have challenges that are best served through supportive services. But we can’t give 100% in just one direction. I fear we often overfocus on the hard and give short shrift to the easier and more enjoyable.

I don’t want us to forget that all our children have strengths and the right to enjoy feeling competent and able to do things that are fun and easy, too. Maybe we don’t have to “fix” everything at the expense of achieving above average competence in other areas.

There is no right or wrong in how we divvy up our time and energy. But I ask you to mindfully consider how you invest those precious resources when addressing your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  We can acknowledge, yes, they are different, AND they can excel with encouragement and support to do what they are good at, rather than  investing too much focus on what is hard.