My Son Feels Second Class

Q: My 9-year-old son, who is now in third grade, has had learning problems since pre-school. The issue wasn’t so much that he was a behavior problem; rather, he just wasn’t able to concentrate well, to the extent that we put him on medication.

Recently, after many hours of testing, we now have a better handle on what his exact learning issue is, and we’re working with tutors to help him in areas where he is weak. Written tests are made easier for him, and sometimes he’s given oral tests because he has problems with his writing.

His brothers and sisters all do better in school than he does, and I know that he is jealous of them. (He barely could read until this year.)

My husband is a hard-working businessman and probably didn’t do well in school himself. (He’s uncomfortable talking about his school experiences.) He has been very successful financially in the retail business, but doesn’t always make time for his children.

My son is more of a thinking type than my husband, and analyzes everything around him. My son sees how life seems unfair, and is pretty cynical for his young age.

He’s very good at sports, and finds great pleasure in playing. Unfortunately, he can get too competitive with others — I’ve been told that he can change the rules of the game when he’s frustrated enough — and it’s hard for him to listen to others in such situations. How can I better work with my son? It seems he feels like he’s second class, no matter how we try to help him.

A: In reality, every person has factors or some type of disability that limits their potential. Some may have limited disabilities that barely affect their lives, and others have disabilities that are more all-encompassing.

Attempting to convince one’s child that his limitation “isn’t so bad” is usually a fruitless endeavor. Accepting reality and working with one’s limitations to surpass initial expectations is a more constructive goal to aspire to.

Being the only sibling needing medication for school performance is something your son is keenly aware of, especially since he is analytical and competitive, as you describe. Some children will shy away from discussing this issue directly, and will change the subject if you try to have an open discussion about it. On the one hand they may feel embarrassed that they need the medication, but often would be forced to admit that the medication is helping them improve their school performance.

When children have very “successful” parents, in any area of life, they sometimes fear that they may not be able to live up to their parents’ expectations. It can be helpful for you and your husband to share with your son times in your lives when you yourselves felt like failures, and how you dealt with it.

On a simplistic level, I once worked with a boy in such a circumstance, and he was relieved to hear that his “successful” father only passed the road test after three times! To learn that one’s parents also had challenges (and surmounted them), gives hope to struggling children. This makes them see themselves not as second class but as striving towards a goal — as their parents did.

Your husband can describe his frustrations in business, and how he faces interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. He can mention how he davens to Hashem to give him ways to respond to people when these relationships become very problematic. Remaining honest in business is always a test, which can also be spoken about.

If your son’s competitive nature can lead him to changing the rules, cheating, etc., your husband can expound on the great virtues of being honest. The fact that the first question that we are asked when we leave this world is if we were honest in our business affairs shows its great importance.

As always, helping motivate a child to realize his potential is one of the main goals of positive parenting. Hatzlachah!