I am often asked what makes a good parent, for a dyslexic child? I can only look at my own experience and see if there are any lessons to be learned.
My Dad died when I was 24. We had a complicated relationship. When I was small, I think I probably had the best of him of any of my siblings. He'd been a wartime bomber pilot and I believe that it took him 20 years to get over the trauma. I believe he had post traumatic stress syndrome, which took the form of violent rages and irrational behaviour. He was hospitalised for much of the late 1950's with all manner of ailments that they could never find any explanation for. Sometime in the early 1960's he was diagnosed with an ulcer and had an operation, which seemed to spell the end of that period of his life. I came on the scene in 1962, when these problems were largely behind him. He was an exceptional man in every way. He was a genius, he was brave, he was a war hero, he'd been a pilot, he was tall and good looking. He'd been a great cricketer and a half decent boxer during his army years. He was a great racantaur and great company. He was generous to a tee and simply saw money as something to be enjoyed rather than horded.
I was the youngest of six. All of my siblings are intelligent and had a good degree of success at school. Along comes number 6. I didn't speak till I was four, couldn't read properly until I was twelve, couldn't play cricket. As I was born in August, six weeks premature, I was actually in the wrong biological school year and so was one of the smallest children in my class in the early years. Many August children suffer from this, but bung in a generous dollop of dyslexia and you have a great recipe for a miserable childhood. My father didn't ever know I was dyslexic, I found out long after he died.
So how did he react to me. Rather oddly, when I was going through the worst of it, he was great. He'd let me hang around his workshops and show me how to make and mend things (something I had little aptitude for). He didn't get frustrated. He would take me fishing, spending hours making "gudgeon traps" or devising ever more cunning ways to catch the fish. He would also take great delight in taking me to fish waters which we were not entitled to fish. His Australian anarchic streak coming strongly through. He took the view that God put the fish there so we could fish them. He didn't understand my complete lack of scholarly aptitude, but didn't make a thing of it. He built me my own space at the bottom of the garden, my "Hut" out of wood and polythene sheeting, with a corrigated plastic roof. He even built a proper concrete base for it.
I would spend every hour possible in the hut, sometimes with friends, often on my own. I would eat there and occasionally even sleep there. It was my space and I was happy there. One time at Primary school, when my parents went on holiday and left me with friends, I decided to "live there". I went home and settled down for the night. Eventually a search party showed up and everyone was livid with rage. When my father got home, he thought it was funny. His response "You should have left him there, he would've come out when he got hungry".
When I became a teenager, my relationship deteriorated. This wasn't due to dyslexia, it was due to the fact that I wasn't prepared to take sh*t from anyone anymore. As I developed coping strategies for dyslexia, my grades improved. As I got more self confidence, my willingness to be pushed around diminshed. As I grew taller and stronger, I would stand my corner. I had a set of weights in the garden and would spend hours building myself up. Then I got into punk rock music. My Dad didn't get this at all.
In my teens our relationship was one of constant arguments and fights. Wheras my Dad had been strong and fit when my brothers were teenagers, time had caught up with him and he couldn't push me around to the same degree. Perhaps the turning point was when he punched me in the face as hard as he could and I responded by saying "Is that all you've got old man". That was the last time he hit me. You may find this shocking, but I've never resented the violence. It was a generational thing and my father felt that men should be able to hold their own in a stand up fight. His view was that if you couldn't, you weren't really a man.
When I left school at 18, after A Levels, I went and lived in Sweden for six months, with a girl I met in Dingwalls. This was the defining moment in my life. Without friends, family or baggage, I was able to be myself. I read prodigiously and for the first time since I was very small, I was happy. Not just a little bit happy, but absolutely ecstatic. When I returned, I was a different person. My relationship with may Dad now completely changed. We talked more as friends most of the time. He supported my musical aspirations as best he could. We had a couple of major spats, brought about by our strong characters.
The last one was when I split after a long term relationship and ended up back at home with serious health problems. I loved my Dad but we couldn't live together. When I moved out, we didn't speak for six months. Eventually, I made my peace. For the last six months of his life, we got on like a house on fire. We'd go for a few beers, have a curry or even a game of snooker. In January 1987, my parents were holidaying in Florida, when my mother's eldest sister died. They flew back and that evening my father had a heart attack and died.
It was the most awful shock. I don't know if I've properly recovered to this day. It probably sounds bonkers, but I sometimes still sit in the garden late at night and chat to him.
So what has all this got to do with dyslexia and parenting? Well nothing and everything really. You see I have come to realise just how lucky I was with my fathers attitude to me and my dyslexia (and he didn't even know I had it). He raised me to believe I could do anything. He recognised early on that I'd never be an Oxford don, so he encouraged me to do other things. If I wanted to know how to do something, he'd spend hours explaining how. Even when I was four or five, he'd tell me it as it was. I can remember being five or six when he showed me how to make nitro glycerene. He explained that this was always a handy skill to have, but also that it needed to be treated with care. He then showed just how dangerous it was, a display I will never forget.
As a pilot, he'd seen the world and he made sure I understood that there were other people and other cultures. He impressed upon me simple rules for being in difficult situations. He explained that any problem you have can always be resolved, but it won't always be resolved in the way you want. Sometimes you just have to make the best of a bad job. He taught me that in any situation, you can't defeat an adversary, unless you understand the way your adversary thinks. He also said and this is far more important, that if your adversary doesn't understand you, then you automatically have the upper hand.
The key thing, the most fundamental thing of all though, for parents of dyslexic children is this. Many parents with dyslexic children are seeking a magic bullet to fix their broken children. This may be "special schools", fish oils, dyslexic friendly typefaces. They are missing the point. The most important thing of all, the thing which will be the defining factor for your children is your love, understanding, support and most of all your time. I can't spell and my grammar is complete sh*te. Despite all of these things I am happy, I run a great business, write a blog which has had well over half a million hits and a family full of love.
I believe that all of this is because I had a Dad who made me believe in myself. My mum also had a huge role in my development, I got most of my politcal beliefs and business acumen from her and I love her for that, but I got my self belief from my Dad. I will never be able to thank him enough for that. If you have dyslexic children, please make sure that whatever you give them, give them as much confidence as you can. This comes from spending time with them, finding things they are good at and never ever telling them they are useless, worthless or hopeless.
I spoke to one parent of a dyslexic child recently, I tried to explain all this. At the end of our conversation he said "that's all very well, but what can I do to actually sort the problem out?". I was tempted to say "The only problem is you", but to my eternal shame just said "I think you need to spend more time reading up on dyslexia, as I don't think you understand it".