I love underdog stories. I can’t get enough of that famous children’s story—The Little Engine That Could. My son, however, is not an underdog.
Sometimes people who don’t really know my son make unflattering assumptions about him based on his issues. They see a boy who is 7 and struggles to dress himself, and they think he can’t do anything. They see him flap his arms and hop on his butt when he gets excited, or they notice him having trouble speaking. And they assume the worst.
Last year, another parent stopped me after a kindergarten basketball game that my son had played in. She looked like she’d just seen a ghost.
“I just can’t believe that’s him,” she said, pointing at my son who was still on the court. “He’s usually so... different.”
I nodded politely. He played great, but he’s a great athlete.
“I just never thought he could be like that,” the mother said. “It’s incredible!”
I resisted the urge to put her on the spot and ask exactly where all this amazement was coming from. Deep down, though, I hate when people underestimate my son. And here are some things I really want people to know about him:
- My son’s fine motor issues don’t make him uncoordinated. Fine motor skills—which are key for putting on clothes, tying shoes or writing legibly with a pencil—aren’t the same as the gross motor abilities we generally think of as athleticism. So it’s not a contradiction that my son struggles with fine motor tasks but excels at sports. The two things aren’t always related.
- His speech issues don’t mean he’s slow. When my son was 2, he’d only say a word or two. For instance, we’d have to prompt him with “ready, set,” before he’d say “go.” My dad told me it wasn’t a big deal. “Not everyone’s going to be smart,” he said. “Our family needs jocks, too.” But I’ve always known my son was smart. He just sometimes lacks the tools to communicate what he knows. Even today with his much-improved speech, he still tends toward the quiet side. If you pay attention to him, though, and really think about what he says, it’s clear how bright he is. Plus he’s very funny. I once had to take him for a blood test, and the nurse asked him, “Which arm do you want me to use, kiddo?” He smirked, “Daddy’s arm.”
- His fidgeting doesn’t mean he has attention issues.My son does a lot of jumping, flapping and bouncing. But despite this, he’s very focused and picks up on everything. Last May, I took him to his first Mets baseball game and from the first pitch to the final out, he was tuned in on the action. He can still tell me all the relief pitchers the Mets used that day. Likewise, his teachers tell me he always pays attention in class, even when he’s bouncing on his chair.
- Just because he’s quiet doesn’t mean he lacks social skills.My son can be very quiet and may seem withdrawn to others. But he’s actually very social—when he chooses to be. When he was a toddler, I used to watch him lock eyes with someone from across the room and flirtatiously smile until that person smiled back at him. These days, he’s very polite, saying please and thank you. He has lots of playdates (even though he occasionally ditches the other kid to go read by himself). And at school, he runs up his good behavior chart for being kind to other students. He might be introverted, but so am I.
- Just because he’s different doesn’t mean he’s at a disadvantage.My biggest fear is that someday, my son will listen to what some random person says about him and believe it. I worry that he might start thinking he’s lacking or broken in some way. So far, that hasn’t happened. Thankfully, his teachers and our school have been great. They treat him the same as everyone else. They know him and believe he can be just as successful as any other child, despite his unique challenges. And so do we.
Read more about how to respond when others comment on or judge your parenting. Get tips for nurturing your child’s self-esteem. And download a free activity to identify your child’s strengths.
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About the author
Michael Bahler, JD is an attorney and writer living in New Jersey, and the father of three.