Many years ago I taught art in a private elementary school. One of the boys in the second grade was diagnosed as hyperactive; this was long ago when this condition was still relatively rare. I loved this boy—he was intelligent and creative. Luckily for him at this time he had a very wise teacher.
She allowed him to sit on the floor and play with blocks during class while the rest of the students sat at their desks. She told me that, even though he wasn’t “paying attention” to the lesson, whenever she asked him a question he was completely aware of what was being taught. She realized that he could focus his attention better when his hands and body were engaged in activity. If she had tried to make him sit still he would have had much more trouble following the lesson. What was so remarkable to me was not only her understanding of this boy’s needs, but her ability to explain to the other children why they had to stay in their seats. I never heard any grumbling about unfairness.
A few days ago the New York Times reported, “Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” If that’s not bad enough, the American Psychiatric Association is just about to change its definition of the disorder, which, the Times article says, will result in even more children being diagnosed.
Every day I read the blog of Tom Toles, the Washington Post cartoonist. In a post this week he casually mentioned that, since he hated sitting for long periods in meetings, perhaps he had ADHD. “Meetings are a little like School, which was never a friend of mine. I am a born fidgeter, and about 30 minutes in a chair is about maximum for me. Yes ADD or ADHD or Addlle-Dee-Dee or what have you. I get bored and restless.”
This made me think: maybe the problem isn’t the kids—maybe our modern system of work and school is unnatural for humans. Instead of medicating our children perhaps we should be examining our culture. We’re rewarding quiet, submissive children who can sit still for long periods of time and punishing lively, energetic children. Is this really wise? Or does it make for docile workers?
The NY Times article quotes Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of How Doctors Think: “There’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought to be quote-unquote abnormal — if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk — that’s pathological, instead of just childhood.”
Of course there are some troubled youth whose lives have been transformed for the better by ADHD medication. What is at issue here is the labeling of twenty percent of our teen-age boys as diseased.
Time magazine also reported on the CDC data. Studies have shown that behavioral therapy can be very effective in treating ADHD, and this means changing more than just the child’s behavior: “Playing and engaging more directly with children on a regular basis, for example, tends to calm them down, and setting limits and educating children about the consequences of their actions can also help.”
How many of the problems that children have today can be traced to the pressures and stresses on modern parents? When both parents work, and their jobs require constant connection via cell phone and email, children are going to suffer.
Of course, writing a prescription is far easier than reassessing our behavior—that of individual parents and that of society as a whole.