Talk about hands-off parenting…

I’m completely bewildered by the classic Ann Landers column run today (the original was published in 1999):

Dear Ann Landers: My son, “Danny,” was a perfectly adorable little 8-year-old. Unfortunately, when he started school, he did very poorly. Neither my husband nor I think Danny has a learning disability, but we were quite concerned when his teacher told us he only knew the letters A through H and showed no progress in learning to read.

This past year, we decided to send Danny to a boarding school out of state. When he returned for the summer, things were worse. Danny used to have a gentle temperament, but now, he is angry and belligerent. He abuses the family pets, which he never did before. He rushes to answer the phone and is rude to the caller. When I ask him how things are going in school, he says he hates it.

It sounds to me as if something might have happened to him at boarding school. I need to find out what is going on. What should I do? — Puzzled in Riverside, Calif.

This letter sounds like it was written by a grandparent, concerned aunt, or family friend….not the person responsible for raising this child!  This letter raises so many questions: he was a “perfectly adorable 8-year-old,” but everything went downhill when he started school? Shouldn’t he have been in school for three years already, at least?

They “were quite concerned” when they heard from his teacher that he only knows the alphabet through the letter H?  He’s not been tested for any kind of learning or behavior problems, but their first step was to send him, not just to a private school, but a boarding school, and not to one where they could visit on weekends, but out-of-state?  Rather than find out that their child has, say, dyslexia (just a random example), they’d rather send him off to live in another state–without that information to aid his teachers?

Yikes.  There’s just something seriously screwy here. There’s not really enough information here to say much more than that.  It’s entirely possible that “Danny” has  learning or behavioral challenges that have totally befuddled or exhausted his parents’ mental and emotional energies–but they don’t seem willing to admit or investigate that possibility.  I can’t help but wonder if he’s so far behind because simply they haven’t raised him–and now he can’t catch up, and is acting out.

It seems like one thing–and a perfectly natural and common thing–for an eight-year-old boy to struggle with the transition to school, and learning to read and write.  It seems like another all together for his parents to be surprised to hear about it from a third party.  In short: if they don’t know he doesn’t know his alphabet, that suggests they’ve never taught it to him or practiced it with him.  If they never taught it to him or practiced it with him, how is he supposed to know it?  I wonder how much of this unfortunate cycle comes down to the fact that he’s woefully behind his classmates because he’s woefully unprepared.

Certainly he should be tested–especially if he’s starting to abuse animals and act out in other frightening ways–but it would be a shame if he were diagnosed with a disability when the real trouble is, he’s trying to pick up, in school, at eight, what the other kids have been practicing since they were three.

Of course there is room for infinite shades of complexity, here.  For one thing, it’s possible there’s a combination of learning disability and parental confusion about what to do.  It ‘s also possible that he does fine at home, but–much to his parents’ surprise–can’t or doesn’t perform the same tasks in a school setting (though the mother didn’t give any indication that this is the case). It could be that English his not his parents’ first language, so they aren’t able to be as involved as they’d like in helping him with it at home.  I’m not a parent, teacher, or child-development expert, so I won’t even venture to make up the many other possibilities that I’m sure could also be in play here.

Any of these could be true.  But it was this mother’s strangely objective distance that shocked me.  It didn’t sound from the letter like she interacted or tried anything with her son at all–like she expected his academic and social development to just happen independently.  And she signs off as “puzzled”?  This is her child, not a sudoku.  For over a year, her son has become increasingly miserable and frustrated–and now destructive–as he is unable to get a handle on perhaps the most basic skill he’ll need for school (and life), and she’s “puzzled”?  Freaked me out.  Poor little guy.

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