Is It Ever Okay to Tell Him He’s Not Good at Something?
“I hate spelling. I’m a bad speller.”
That’s what eeked out from my son’s down-turned, sun-bleached head this week as he and I labored through the words on his spelling pre-test. Part of God’s story for my son, and indirectly, me, includes his profound ADHD and its accompanying dysgraphia, a disorder that makes it remarkably difficult for him to spell. We’ve landed on a very effective strategy, but first, we find the words he doesn’t know.
When he realized how many words he couldn’t spell, his shoulders tipped downward, as did his eyes.
What’s the right thing to say at a moment like this, when a child’s spirit lies crumpled beside you?
Years ago, I was intrigued by a conversation my parents had with a particularly slight, yet bold inner-city student: “I’m gonna be a rapper, or a quarterback for the pros!” This was despite topping out at about four feet as a middle schooler who would clearly never fall on the heavyweight size of things. As charming as this might sound—a ray of hope despite the darkness of poverty, perhaps?—what my parents found discouraging was that his sights seemed not set too high, but too low. It wasn’t that someone needed to come along and deflate him. It seemed that no one was effectively steering this kid, with all of his innate gifting and passion, to significantly more fulfilling dreams and a path to get there.
This opened my eyes. Could the whole “You can be whatever you want to be!” mantra actually be hurtful? Could it be that in the name of love, we care more about feelings in the current moment than about lovingly directing kids toward something better? About unleashing who they are—and not who they aren’t?
That single conversation settled its heavy influence over my parenting. Don’t get me wrong: God is the true Dream Weaver. If He sets a dream within us and opens its doors, those dreams are simply unstoppable! The Bible is chock-full of unlikely people accomplishing mind-boggling things, like a shepherd boy defeating an army, or sporting a crown.
But a lot of different factors pile into dreams. Our unique, God-crafted makeup is one of those. And pretending like we’re all gifted however we want—or that having a certain gift is what matters—doesn’t set anyone free to step into their distinctive, integral role in His body and His story.
Recognizing our weaknesses also gets us closer to learning our strengths. And even our weaknesses display God’s power.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:9
Neglecting our children’s true gifting—or lack of gifting—does not speak life to them.
And that applies to how we compare our children, too. Pretending two children are equally smart, musical, talented, athletic, winsome, physically attractive, or exceptional baton-twirlers doesn’t mean they’re “protected” by self-esteem. Instead, they’re endangered by a false sense of identity, inflated around their perceived ability to achieve.
In truth, their value has never been derived from whether or not they’re great at drawing, or turning flips, or hitting home runs, or looking great in a pair of jeans. It lies in the fact that they’re made in the image of He who defines value.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean we trumpet our perspectives without class, or sensitivity, or concern. Truth without love does not display God, either. It also doesn’t mean that we are the arbiters of our children’s futures, vetoing those endeavors we deem a waste of time. There’s great value in giving our children confidence to try new things, and to fail and try again. But we earn our children’s trust by faithfully, gently proving we’ll always be honest as we dream alongside them.
This thought came galumphing through my mind after that fateful spelling pretest. That’s when I pulled my son toward me, cupped his sweet face in my hands, and tilted those blue eyes up to meet mine—though I must admit, my vision was obstructed by the tears creeping around the edges of my own.
“You know what? I know spelling is really hard for you. And you’re right—spelling is not your thing. But you know what I’m seeing is your thing? God has made you incredibly compassionate, and to know and love animals in a way that amazes me. He makes you ask such wise questions about Him and about the Bible—questions that just blow me away! You’re valuable ‘cause He says you are, in the way He did make you. And we’re gonna keep trying your best so we can honor Him.”
So … yes. Last week, I actually told my son he was not a good speller. Mom fail? Maybe, in the eyes of some. But hopefully, just maybe, my son was sent further into the dreams of the Dream Weaver, rather than a misguided sense of what makes him worthwhile.
Maybe share this post with your child’s father. Together make a plan to gently, lovingly guide your child toward the gifts and talents God has given him or her.