Hollywood legend Henry Winkler was late to the Happy Days set a time or two for a reason very relatable to parents. As the actor rushed out out of his house to get to rehearsal to play the Fonz, his young stepson would innocently come up to him.
“He would say, ‘Henry, I uh, I uh, I uh, I love green,’” Winkler recalls. “'OK. Hey, I’m so happy you told me that. We’re going to discuss green when I get home, but right now I have to get in my car.’"
But the interruption taught him an important lesson: "If you take the extra 40 seconds to just hear, a heard child, to me, is a powerful child," he says.
That calm, patient and loving approach is, to this day, how Winkler and his wife Stacey parent their three children and six grandchildren. He says he's this way because it's the opposite of his own parents' approach, and he knew he wanted to do better.
“I love the idea of, and I don’t mean to sound corny, being able to listen and not reproduce my own parents,” Winkler tells Yahoo Life. “When I would get out of sorts I could literally hear myself say, ‘OK, that’s not what I meant to say’ or ‘that’s not how I meant to say it. I’m going to stop, we’re going to start again. This is what I mean.’”
Taking the time to listen and understand their children's needs was key for the Winklers. Winkler and his wife also included their children in decision-making, like setting a curfew, what a fair consequence should be and how homework should be completed.
“Max [his youngest son] would listen to the radio when he would do homework,” Winkler recalls. “I would say, ‘you can’t listen to the radio. You need a good chair, a good light and a good desk.’ Max put his knee on his chair, never sat down, sometimes stood at his desk and I thought, maybe him listening to the radio as a funnel of sound he would go into because the grades were coming home ... Maybe I should just shut up.”
School was a sore subject for Winkler when he was growing up. He struggled immensely in class and was often belittled by his parents for his academic performance. It wasn’t until Winkler was 31 that he was diagnosed with dyslexia.
There was a time when Winkler caught himself saying to his children the same things he heard from his own parents — things like "you’re not working hard enough." And then a switch went off.
“I realized, wait a minute,” Winkler says. “I know what it was like for me and [dyslexia] is [often] hereditary. So the people who were yelling at me, the people who grounded me, gave it to me.”
At that point Winkler and his wife let their children know the most important thing is that they do their best.
“If you do the best you can, I do not care, Mom does not care what grades you bring home, but if you don’t do the best you can, there will be consequences,” Winkler says.
Although he’s best known for his work in film and TV,, the Emmy winner has another role that is inspiring a younger generation of fans. Winkler, along with Lin Oliver, is a best-selling author of the children’s book series , which is about a dyslexic child based on many of Winkler’s own experiences.
“Parents say, ‘oh my kid is learning challenged,’ and I look at the kid and I say ‘how you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are because no one has asked me about a hypothesis since 1963,’” Winkler says. “I was called stupid. I was called lazy and I’ve had a pretty nice career.”
Children need to be recognized for their strengths no matter what they may be, he adds.
“Why do we celebrate only the top 10% of a class and not the bottom 3% of the class, which I’m in?” Winkler says. “I need what they can do. I don’t care that they don’t know how to spell. I need them because they know how to be a plumber or be in theater. We need everything that the child is good at to keep our country great.”
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