Last year, after a particularly hard week working with my son, I shared this "long pour" in the Rooted Community. This is a reflection of the heartache many parents of struggling learners go through, along with Rita's thoughtful, guiding perspective. ~ Linda

I feel like I'm on a teeter-totter shifting back and forth between productive struggle and destructive struggle, and today it made my heart ache badly! So much great work has been happening over here with my son who struggles. He has the kind of LA struggles that I don't even really know how to articulate . . . something in the realm of expressive language difficulties, processing, working memory, extremely literal concrete thinking. Sometimes it's as if there is a complete roadblock (really a skyscraper) that goes up in his brain and he just shuts down. I still get caught by surprise when this happens because a lot of the time I feel like he's rolling along doing fairly well.

We've been alternating our work this year using various resources including short stories, short films, and picture books with three full novel studies sprinkled in. Last week I wrapped up our short story analysis asking him and his twin sister to write a new ending to the story. This came after a few days of working with this short story doing grammar, vocabulary, setting and character analysis, and plot arc. You would have thought I had asked my son to write a ten-page short story of his own creation. I asked for 4-5 sentences, a freewrite, to end a story we had read and analyzed pretty thoroughly. We had a bit of discussion about what this ending could look like. I threw out ideas from the simple to the ridiculous. His twin sister chimed in with ideas of her own. My son pounded his fists into his thighs in frustration.

The thing is, I know he can do this. I just know it takes him extra time to think it through. So, I finally left the table and told him he could take as long as he needed. He could even set it aside and go do something else to give himself time to think about it. But I told him he needed to write those 4-5 sentences and turn it into me by the end of the day. He was beyond frustrated at this point, but about 20 minutes later he had it finished. And I was pleasantly surprised with what he had written.

Then comes today. I decided we would each read aloud our versions of the new ending. I was intentional with this request. My son struggles with oral presentation a LOT. He seems to crumble and with that mumble and run everything together. The fit he threw was even worse than the previous activity. Have I mentioned he's almost 14? He could not stop telling himself, and us, that he could not do this! We talked about the fact that he had the softest audience ever (just his twin sister and me), and that I was more focused on him reading aloud rather than what was actually written (this because he kept saying he hated what he wrote). I gave him the opportunity to review it and make changes. He said no. I gave him the option to go to another room and practice reading it aloud a few times before reading it to us. He refused. I even gave him the option of turning his back toward us as he read. More fists into the chair and even tears. I told him we would sit there all day if we needed to, but we would wait until he read his paragraph. And we waited. And waited. I talked about how he spent 30 minutes in anguish over what would take him less than 1 minute to read aloud.

And I hated myself for forcing him to do this and not giving in and giving up.

I don't know if I reached the level of destructive struggle - probably - but I worry about learned helplessness too. I know that speaking to and presenting to others is a big struggle for him and we can't keep avoiding it. I regret not making him do this every week this past year. I finally reached the point where I gave him an ultimatum to either go to his room to practice it for 5 minutes or to begin reading it immediately. His sweet sister sat there patiently this entire time just waiting for him and also encouraging him. He said no to going to his room to practice, so I stood there with him and I read the first three words pointing to them (read with a pencil style), and then he finally took over reading it aloud. He read it very well and his articulation was better than usual under the circumstances.

But it's so crushing to see him get so stuck!! 

I will end on a good note. Once we got through him reading his ending, my daughter read hers and I read mine. We had some conversation about the three different versions we came up with, and then we went on to doing Annotating Literary Elements Lesson 3, Colors of the Canopy, finding various literary elements throughout the short story. My son did a good job contributing to the discussion and helping to find elements and annotate as we went paragraph by paragraph. He's come a long way this year. He's done more essay writing than in any years past, and when we did our grammar analysis for this short story he was solid on his answers rather than throwing out any term, guessing randomly. He even got more correct on the vocabulary work than I did!

Still, here I sit, teary-eyed, as I know many of you understand, trying to figure out how to know if I'm doing right by him.


Rita's thoughtful reply: 

I feel so many things at once — but mostly the idea that only good parents reflect on being good parents! 

You know I lean into this struggle with our kids. I was raised by Depression-Era parents who knew hardship and made us work hard, though not as hard as they did. I raised my kids to know the value of hard work, though not in the way my parents did. Yet life is different for our kids in each generation, which I could see even within the 6-year span from my oldest to my youngest. The world brings new stresses we may not always recognize. 

It is the parent's job to help their kids learn to regulate emotions, and each child has their own skills in this area. It also varies based on the child's age and stage. I always struggled between helping one child regulate life while feeling guilt over the kids who had to accommodate while we all worked it through. I also struggled between helping each child regulate emotions while also teaching them to be kind to others. I wanted my kids to learn that the world does not revolve around how they feel and that sometimes our feelings can derail us. But then I struggled with how to show them that their feelings matter to those who love them. One message always seemed to hijack the other. Meanwhile, I felt like a juggler as I tried to keep everyone happy, while somehow impressing that happiness is often elusive and they should instead pursue joy. 

Riding the emotional roller coaster with our kids is so, so hard. I wanted my kids to "fake it to make it" for the sake of others because I didn't want them to become the kind of people who mistreat others simply because they are in a crabby mood. I wanted them to clean up their own messes and to do the right thing whether they felt like it or not. I wanted them to be able to be selfless and see other people's needs and perspectives — not just their own. Unfortunately, sometimes I expected them to be little adults, and maybe even better than I am. I sometimes wanted too much too soon, or I pursued it in the wrong way.

BUT, I also have a heart for learning struggle and the anxiety (and fear) that results. Sometimes I understood my kids, but too many times I messed up. As adults, and married children, my kids now appreciate our bit of "push" and think they are better for it. But they each have had to forgive us for the times we messed up. The truth is we, as parents, truly never know. All we can do is keep trying, keep talking to our kids, keep asking for forgiveness, and keep explaining why we care about their progress as humans. 

I also wondered what was hard-wired and what was just the need for maturation. Yet each of my kids grew up and now manages a job and life's details. Each one cleans and shops and pays the bills. Each one knows how to love others, especially their spouses and kids. Each one has set out to be a bit better than we were. They can be more in the moment, for example, doing a better job prioritizing fun over work. But like us, they each prioritize family and are fiercely loyal. 

I had no idea how my kids would turn out, but I really wish I had maintained constant hope and belief in their genuine goodness. I wish I had hugged them more when they were angry at me and pushing me away. But I am also glad I taught them boundaries and how to treat others - including their siblings and parents. I am glad we worked on better ways to express and process anxiety and fear. 

God bless you. You love your son and he knows it. Be genuine with him and hug him. Have hope and focus on who he is. Then roll up your sleeves — again — and figure out how to help him through.

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