When My Son With Dyslexia Wouldn’t Read With Me, We Found Another Way to Connect

When my son was 9, we did our own version of the read-before-bedtime ritual. It was a nightmare. While other parents cuddled with their children and took turns reading aloud from Harry Potter or Treasure Island, we battled over books that were babyish and boring.

My son has dyslexia, and in fourth grade he was still struggling to words. From the time he was an infant, I read to him daily. I kept reading to him even after he started school and we discovered he had reading issues. But as he fell further behind, I started feeling like I needed to do more.

The message I got from the school was clear: He needed as much reading practice as possible. All parents are charged with helping to build their child’s reading skills and foster a love of reading. I felt charged with helping mine overcome a huge challenge in 20-minute blocks every day.

So I stopped reading to him, and started “helping” him read for 20 minutes a night. The problem was I had no idea how to teach a child with dyslexia to read. I had no training or background in education.

It was torture for both of us. For him, it was a continuation of the frustration he felt every day at school. For me, it was a stressful reminder that I was supposed to be making a difference, and I wasn’t.

He yelled, I yelled. It was awful. Instead of looking forward to spending time together at the end of the day, we dreaded it.

I don’t know how I got the idea, but one night instead of picking up a book, I decided to turn on a classic movie that was on TV. We’d already watched some of the tamer Hitchcock films as a family, so black-and-white movies weren’t a novel concept.

That was the start of a new before-bedtime routine: 20 minutes of film noir every night. It turned out that while my son couldn’t read a thriller, he loved watching them.

For the next few months, we didn’t read at all. We watched movies like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon. I remember one where a fugitive Humphrey Bogart had his face replaced, and another where a jealous Bette Davis killed her twin sister.

I loved it and he loved it. Instead of arguing over whose turn it was to read next, we leaned back against the pillows and relaxed together. We escaped to someplace fun and interesting.

I didn’t plan on this, but our new bedtime routine also turned into a learning experience. Introducing him to great movies was as enriching in some ways as introducing him to great books. It opened up new worlds. It gave him a historical perspective on all sorts of things—fashion, design, technology and pop culture. It showed him the art of storytelling.

That’s not to say his struggles ended. They didn’t. And at certain points, they dominated our relationship again.

When high school became tough, and college became a question mark, I sometimes worried that I didn’t spend enough time “practicing” with him. I still feel that way sometimes. But I remind myself that I wasn’t his teacher or his tutor. And I certainly didn’t want to be his torturer.

The fact is I made sure he was getting support and extra practice—just not with me. He worked with a reading specialist every day in school. We also paid for a certified reading tutor twice a week until he became a fairly fluent reader. And, when he let me, I still read books aloud to him. But I never forced him to take a turn.

I would have happily practiced reading with him if I could have. But since it was only going to be destructive, I put nurturing our relationship first.

I wish I’d known then that I didn’t need to feel bad about that choice. I’m his mother, and it was my job was to carve out 20 great minutes a day for us to spend time together.

Have you experienced something similar with your child? Feel free to share in the comments below, or join a group to connect with parents like you.

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