This moving story of a mother and her ADHD son involves my sister Cynthia Gill and her son Jay. Cynthia is co-author with me of Jump-Starting Boys, from which this is excerpted.

Cynthia noticed something different about her third son, Jay, long before he reached kindergarten.

During family reading time, he would restlessly color or fiddle with books while his older brothers listened attentively. She knew enough to allow him to be restless because she knew he was still listening, and how else would she get any books into him? But her instincts told her that his inability to sit still or focus was not typical boy stuff.

His first-grade teacher noticed the same issues and worked with Cynthia and her husband to get Jay diagnosed as having ADHD. They noticed Jay’s reading increase and improve immediately after he started taking Ritalin. But it wasn’t enough to restore what Cynthia refers to as his lack of a social antenna and his dwindling self-confidence.

By the time Jay was old enough to ride the bus to school, he was trying out impulsive, attention-getting behavior that worked against making friends, like insulting children five years older and then feeling mystified when they were mean back. And although he was very intelligent, his schoolwork and other  activities suffered from his hyperactivity.

“He would get singled out for discipline in almost every activity, even drama and Sunday school,” Cynthia recalls. “He began to see himself as a loser very young. Even though you can medicate them
and help them read well, it doesn’t always help self-esteem unless they get more help. Plus, teachers and authorities don’t always know how to deal with ADHD kids. In retrospect, I think we put
too much stock in Ritalin.”

In grade three, Jay was nearly kicked out of school for ongoing attention-getting behavior like declaring he intended to commit suicide. His parents, unaware of an ADHD child’s needs, reacted like many parents, using punitive methods such as labeling, shaming, and punishments. Jay’s father had less tolerance for his youngest son’s antics than Cynthia, and he and Jay had a difficult relationship for some of Jay’s formative years. However, they have an amicable, even close relationship today—evidence of children’s resilience and what a parent’s perseverance can accomplish.

Here is how Jay, now age twenty-seven, recalls his childhood: “I was above the norm at reading and writing and I was in an advanced math class. But I was bad at doing my schoolwork. I was lazy and have a hard time keeping my mind on something I’m not interested in at that moment. I’m kind of scatterbrained. And getting myself to study for a test took more effort than normal; I was strong-willed in not wanting to do that.”

He recalls hiding his actual reading level from friends. “That’s pretty classic with most boys. The more aggressive guys are often the more unintelligent.”

Cynthia has some regrets about her own handling of Jay: “I was too easy on him. I tried to make up for his problems by being too coddling, yet in so doing, I ended up spoiling him. In my own confusion, I vacillated between being too easy and too harsh.”

Despite the challenges, Jay tried hard to succeed at school until he hit ninth grade, when he all but gave up. His parents enrolled him in an alternative school at that point, which Jay acknowledges helped him for a while, even though he didn’t feel entirely comfortable with his fellow classmates. “The majority of kids in there were kids others were scared of. People started to look at me more like I was a criminal than a dork, and at the time, I kind of liked that. At sixteen, you have to find a group of people you fit in with.”

Before his senior year, Jay dropped out, experimented with drugs, and ran away from home. Even so, he knew he wanted that high school degree. When he entered a General Education Development program to achieve it through taking tests (typically a year’s process), he blew administrators away by attending only two classes, then passing all five tests on the first try.

Today, Jay maintains a close relationship with both of his parents. He’s training to be an actor, and proudly names reading as one of his hobbies. Looking back, he particularly appreciates that his parents had a house well stocked with books, and emphasized the importance of reading with their kids:

“Unlike television and music, books build your own imagination. They help you create rather than just consume and watch. Reading is good, school is important; knowledge is power and the more knowledge you have, the happier you’ll be.”

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references (footnotes) contained in the book.