By Tara Wilson
My 11-year-old daughter, Molly, has ADHD. This means that school is hard for her, and it also means I spend a lot of quality time with my hairdresser, trying to deal with these greys that have taken over my head.
Molly and I took a break from school to go to the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair a while ago to see Dav Pilkey, author and illustrator of the hugely famous The Adventures of Captain Underpants series.
Pilkey talked about his childhood, and dealing with dyslexia and hyperactivity in school, and how he was always in trouble. The idea for Captain Underpants and the first comic strip was born in elementary school.
Later, I talked to Pilkey one-on-one about how parents can help kids with learning differences.
“School was just torture for me as a kid,” Pilkey says. “I do remember feeling like a total failure as a kid and I think that somehow I had equated in my mind that if you don’t do well in school you’re not going to do very well in life.
“I wish that I had known that there are examples of people who just didn’t fit in very well at school but who still did very well in life . . . that’s why it’s very important for me to share that with kids.”
He certainly reached my daughter, judging by the giant grin on her face when he mentioned ADHD at the festival.
‘Always on my side’
Pilkey says having supportive parents is key to kids’ success.
“That’s what made all the difference for me, is having a great home life. I always felt very safe at home. They were always on my side.”
Parents also need to be good detectives, because sometimes our kids take on big problems alone, not wanting to upset us.
“They weren’t aware of some of the things that were happening at school because I felt bad,” Pilkey says of his parents.
“I had so many problems at school and I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I didn’t tell them about some of the things that I should have told them. If they had known, I know they would have pulled me out of that school immediately.”
The right time, the right place
Pilkey has some additional strategies he finds helpful in managing learning differences and ADHD-type symptoms.
He has always found nature soothing, for instance. “I’d get on my bike and I’d ride five miles away to the frog pond, with my pail and my net and come home with a bucket full of frogs, and I was always so happy being out by myself, close to nature, and with animals, too,” he recalls. “It just helped me feel…maybe more focused is a good way to put it. The independence was very helpful to me, too.”
I see that in Molly after she has spent time in nature, and she definitely has that same talent for frog gathering!
Even now, Pilkey, who has a home in Japan, often kayaks to a cave, where he spends the day writing and drawing. “Something about being all alone in that cave with the water rolling in and out…it’s just sort of an idyllic place where I can just let my imagination run wild.”
It’s important to figure out what environment works best for kids to study in, whether it's a quiet bedroom without distractions or in the hub of the house surrounded by lots of activity. Try noise-cancelling headphones, with or without music. In nice weather, try doing homework outside—maybe not in a Japanese cave, but in the backyard or at a park.
‘Let your imagination run wild’
George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the main characters in the Captain Underpants series, are based on Pilkey as a child: They are very creative and have “a silly streak a mile long” that is hard to control, and “sometimes it got them into trouble.”
Pilkey has some advice for the Georges and Harolds of the world: “Just stick with it. Try to draw and write as much as you can because that’s a good way to let your imagination run wild.
“Just try not to worry too much because not everybody learns the same way. I think thinking outside the box can be a very valuable thing. I mean, this world has a lot of problems in it—this world is not going to be fixed by the button pushers. It’s going to be fixed by the people who can think outside the box.
For kids who struggle as he did: “I would tell them that they’re very powerful and very important.”
If you have a Captain Underpants fan in your house, watch for the next book in the series, The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-lot, due out in August. The main villain is the gym teacher, who has invented a stink potion that reverses the effects of ADHD and creates a new disorder—Attention Superfluous Lethargy Syndrome—taking over the minds of all the children in the world. We can’t wait!
Tara Wilson is an always-distracted mom of three tween girls. She writes about raising kids with autism and ADHD on her blog Don’t Lick the Deck, with a perspective of humour and imperfect mothering.
Get your Dav Pilkey book signed at Edmonton’s Chapters Southpoint on Saturday, Feb. 7 at noon.
Or join him at the Calgary Public Library the next day! 16 Macleod Trail Southeast, Sunday Feb. 8, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. The event is free but please register at the library or by calling 403-260-2600
Dav Pilkey portrait by Kai Suzuki, 2013, provided by Scholastic Canada