Care and Feeding

Should I Tell My Daughter About Her Dyslexia?

I don’t want her to feel different, but does she have the right to know why she struggles where others don’t?

A girl wears a backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a very smart 8-year-old who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. She has a very, very high verbal intelligence, which has allowed her to hide her disability until recently. She does well in school (about average to a little above) but still reverses letters, has sloppy handwriting, avoids reading some books with small print, struggles copying off the board, and struggles completing papers with lots of visual distraction.

She is in an integrated class (she is unaware) and has mostly modifications in her education plan (her IEP) as well as twice weekly pull-out occupational therapy. She has questioned me as to why she has to go to OT and why she is no longer in the class with her old friends. Some of her peers have teased her because of her handwriting and spelling. She is starting to see that she sees the world a little differently. Should I tell her that she has dyslexia, and if so, when and how? What would I say? I don’t want to make her feel more different than she already feels, but maybe explaining her differences will have the opposite effect?

I don’t want to do the wrong thing here and cause more of a hit to her already fragile self-esteem.

—Do I Tell Her?

Dear DITH,

Absolutely you tell her, and now. I don’t want to Captain Hindsight you, but this column is read by a lot of parents, and a child at the age and intellectual maturity you have described here is definitely old enough to know her diagnosis and how it currently affects her life.

This is a conversation I have had with so many parents, and it’s more emotional than a lot of parents see coming. Especially for parents who are very on-the-ball like yourself (ENFORCE THAT IEP, good job!) and have been dancing a furious jig to try to ensure that your kid doesn’t smack up against a particularly stigmatized wall of reality: disability. Right now, your daughter feels like she’s fucking up in ways her peers aren’t, and they know, and she knows, and she doesn’t know why, and that’s extremely frustrating.

I have a friend who was driving her autistic daughter to a therapy session and her daughter (about your daughter’s age) said, “Mom, why do I go here on Wednesdays when my friends don’t?” My friend, who immediately had an internal meltdown, nonetheless roused herself to say, essentially: “Well, you know how Jodie needs glasses? And Simon uses a wheelchair to get around?” and then moved from there to calmly explaining, in age-appropriate language, that she, the daughter, had a condition called “autism” that meant she needed certain extra supports to navigate school, etc. And from there, they began to have longer conversations about what we know and what we don’t, and how she felt about it.

It went well. It was good for them to talk about it. But you have the chance to start the conversation, which is a good opportunity to take. Sit her down, and say, “You know how your schedule is a little different from Jake’s? Well, that’s because …” and explain her diagnosis and the supports in place to help her navigate her education. Call your pediatrician: She may have tips on age-appropriate language for this conversation, which she has had many, many times.

And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “giving her an excuse” by talking honestly about her disability. Those people are aggravating as hell.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the dad of a sweet, smart, and pretty chill 2-year-old boy, whose mother is in the hospital to try to keep our still-quite-preemie baby twins on the inside a bit longer. To distract the little man a bit from missing his mom, I try to make sure we do plenty of fun activities, and here is where my question comes in.

I love doing stuff on the water, whether it is swimming, sailing, rowing, or ice skating, and I had the brilliant idea of taking the toddler to rent a canoe here on the Potomac in Washington. I realize our first trip will probably be short. He will also wear a life vest, and I don’t aim for much more than paddling in front of the boathouse. My wife was shocked that I would even contemplate this with our boy who loves water but can’t properly swim yet. Of course, I don’t want to do anything to make her uncomfortable and won’t push, but the question does nag a bit. What do you think, boating with toddlers, yea or nay?

—The Call of the (Mildly) Wild

Dear CoT(M)W,

It sounds like you’ve been doing a great job thinking of your son’s emotions at what has to be a scary time for the little guy. At 2, distractions are really more useful than deep conversations about our fears. (Please do make sure you’re talking about his mom and listening to him in return.)

My weak ruling here is that when it comes to toddlers and the water, you ideally want two adults to a kid, regardless of proper life vest usage. I would nevertheless be very willing to say, “Ah, go ahead,” were it not for the fact that it’s going to freak the shit out of your wife, who is miserable and huge and trying to keep two premature twins in her body in the hospital. Wait until things have settled, and this will be a lovely way for you to do something special with a kid who feels like two interlopers have taken over his life and all his parents’ energy. Another way to productively harness your mutual love for the water might be to start swimming lessons, which may make future suggestions of boat-related activities more palatable to your wife.

Cheering for your wife to stay pregnant as long as possible!

If you missed Wednesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old daughter who is still sleeping in her crib (thankfully she hasn’t figured out how to climb out yet). Despite successful sleep training around 7 months—we did cry it out and it worked beautifully at the time—she has been screaming absolute bloody murder for 20 to 30 minutes every single night at bedtime for the last three months now.

My husband and I are at a loss. I know consistency is the key to a bedtime routine, but we are consistent. She has had the same routine of PJs, stories, and singing for months, and despite talks every night about how we’re going to put her down and leave, she screams desperately for her daddy the instant he closes the door. Do we just let her keep this up?

—Losing My Nerve

Dear LMN,

This is not a precisely uncommon time for a sleep regression, as life is just so exciting right now, but three months is a pretty long time for a regression. Your daughter is blowin’ up developmentally and doesn’t want the party to end, and I think you should see if, in fact, she’s ready to stay up a half-hour later now.

You can’t possibly be enjoying hearing her yell every night, so try a slightly later bedtime on for size. Talk to her about it, so she knows it’s a special treat and privilege of being a Bigger Girl, not that she’s successfully screamed herself into a win. That extra half-hour has to be quiet and low-key (coloring, some extra reading), verging on boring. Like adults are!

If the screaming stops, you may have just hit upon a more appropriate sleep schedule for her.

Want to meet Carvell, Nicole, and other parents in New York?

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Dear Care and Feeding

Our daughter is 10 years old, and is at an age where competition is becoming a more regular part of life (such as running for student government, applying for safety patrols, and competing on the swim team). My husband and I encourage her to do her best, but we also find ourselves trying to manage her expectations about her chances of success. In one instance, I think our efforts to identify risks and ensure that her hopes didn’t get too high ended up with her dropping out of the running—not what we had intended. Is it possible to encourage kids to jump in with both feet, while also bubble-wrapping their hearts? Or do we let society take care of the reality check and just cheer our brave little toaster on no matter what?

—Expectation Management

Dear EM,

It sounds like you probably went overboard with whatever “listen, Rock, you just ain’t got what it takes” speech you delivered. (I say this lovingly. I know this wasn’t your intention.) I think you’re just trying a bit too hard.

Expectation management may be the secret to being a happy person, but when you’re a little kid it a) rarely works and b) can be kind of a bummer. So, you know, if Little Melissa declares she’s gonna run the Barkley Marathons, maybe show her the (excellent) documentary and suggest she set her sights a little lower. Otherwise, when she wants to try something, let her figure it out.

Ten is young, but it is also a time in which humans begin to build that exoskeleton that we all desperately need to get through life, and the lessons we learn at that age can really fuel us in positive ways. And there will be some crying. I like her moxie! Let it play out.


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