The Father Factor

When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, dads often have a difficult time accepting the diagnosis and that it can’t be solved by tougher discipline. Here are tips for dads on how to become a positive force in their children’s educational growth.


dad helping son with learning disability with homeworkBert Hafen admits that at first he was skeptical when his oldest son was diagnosed with a learning disability.

“I thought he could do better if he applied himself more,” says the New Canaan, CT father. But when conversations about grades and homework frequently ended with the boy in tears, Hafen realized his son really was trying. He became less critical, telling his son, “I look at a person as a mansion full of rooms. You have one room that’s a little messy, but we still have a whole bunch of other rooms left to enjoy.”

Support from both parents is key to a child’s academic progress and self-esteem. But many fathers are not as involved as they should be, says Corinne Smith, Ph.D., professor of education at Syracuse University and author of Learning Disabilities: A to Z. “While mothers seem more sensitive to the subtle cues of learning disabilities, dads are more likely to think there’s nothing wrong that hard work or tougher discipline couldn’t fix.”


Dads in Denial

“It frequently takes fathers more time to accept that their child has a problem,” says Betty B. Osman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Learning Disabilities and ADHD: A Family Guide to Living and Learning Together. The idea of having an imperfect child might threaten a father’s feelings of competence and self-worth.

Even if a dad struggled with learning himself, he may get defensive, thinking, “I wasn’t a great student, but I turned out fine.” (About half of learning disabilities are inherited, notes Dr. Smith—often from the father.)

“Sometimes dads want to be involved in advocacy, but their own educational experiences were so painful that it’s hard for them to set foot in a school again,” adds Gary Fisher, Ph.D., co-author of When Your Child Has LD: A Survival Guide for Parents.

Yet putting mom in charge of school matters can cause great family stress, Dr. Osman notes. Mothers can become overwhelmed, and kids may assume that dad doesn’t understand them. “LD children need to know that you accept them for who they are, and that you are behind them,” Dr. Osman emphasizes.

Sending that message is not hard; it just takes forethought. By following these simple tips, fathers can become a positive force in their child’s learning.


Face your feelings.

It’s normal to feel disappointed, angry, and shocked when you’re told your child has a problem. But “once you go through that emotional curve, you need to ask yourself, ‘What can I do?'” says John Replogle, CEO of Burt’s Bees, whose daughter has reading difficulties. “There’s such a small window of time in which to intervene and help your child.” When John Spencer, of upstate New York, watched his young son struggle with sight words during diagnostic testing, “It was like seeing myself at that age,” he says. “It was my first understanding of my own reading problems. I vowed that Johnny would not suffer like I had.”


Get the facts.

Learn all you can about LD or ADHD by reading articles and attending support groups. Stacey Hafen says her husband benefited from hearing a talk by a young man who had struggled with learning yet still graduated from Brown University. “It made the challenge real and proved that LD kids can be successful,” she says.


Attend school meetings.

Listen to teachers’ concerns, and share yours. “School professionals respect parents who are honest and active in problem-solving,” Dr. Smith says. “Having the dad at the meeting makes your team more powerful,” she adds, since school officials tend to typecast mothers as emotional and fathers as more rational. She suggests parents request and review reports beforehand and practice what to say in various situations.

See: 10 Tips for a Successful Parent-Teacher Conference


Acknowledge struggles.

Saying things such as, “I know this is hard for you, but you can do it and I’m here to help,” shows kids you’re on their side and relieves their anxiety about not feeling smart, Dr. Osman says. If you had similar difficulties, say, “I had trouble reading too.” Kids need to see that people who struggle to learn can still be successful.


Spend one-on-one time with your child.

Advocating means more than focusing on the disability, Dr. Osman says. “Kids need to know that you like them as people.” Some fathers schedule special dad-and-daughter/son weekends.


Find and foster a passion.

“Help your child become an expert at something,” Dr. Fisher urges. When school is hard, kids need to find a hobby or sport to excel in. Whether you’re fishing on a lake or dribbling up a basketball court, you’re building competence and confidence. And that’s the best gift a dad can give.



Ellen H. Parlapiano is a journalist, author, and mother of two who lives in Eastchester; she writes frequently about learning disabilities.