Saturday, February 11, 2012

Leave the Kids Alone!

Junior isn't doing well in school.  Is he dyslexic?  Does he have A.D.D.?  Or maybe he isn't all that bright.  There are worst things in life than not being all that bright. Over-diagnosing and over-medicating children is an epidemic in America.  Leave your kids alone!

I wrote in a previous entry about how many Women are bombarded by the media with poor normative cues.  And they are constantly made to worry about their kids.  Do they have some un-diagnosed rare disease?  Maybe they are causing trouble in school because of exposure to some toxic chemical?  Or is it A.D.D. and requires Ritalin?  Food allergies?  Chronic Fatigue?  Dyslexia?  We have all sorts of self-diagnoses today, and many folks are deciding their kids are "sick" or have "special needs."

Why is this?  Well it is like with pets.  Your dog or cat gets sick and you feel bad - after all, you are in charge of this small life, and they depend on you to take care of them.  You don't want to drop the ball!  So granny gets chemotherapy for her 18-year-old cat, not realizing that God was trying call Fluffy home and the best course of treatment was euthanasia.

Of course, the vet needed to make payments on his Porsche, so he is quick to slather on the guilt and suggest extreme treatments for animals with a very short life expectancy.

With kids, the problem is confounded 10-fold.  This is a human life we are talking about, and euthanasia isn't an option, of course.  So you want to make sure your kids are OK, and every sniffle and sneeze is looked after.

And the supermarket tabloids and women's magazines - as well as the daytime talk shows - are all too happy to suggest illnesses to nervous parents.  Does your child have A.D.D.?  Here is a simple 10-step test!  And so on.

So, Mothers drag kids to doctor after doctor until they find one who needs to make a Porsche payment and will agree that there is "something wrong" with the kid.  Sound far-fetched?  I lived through it.

Since then, I have seen this happen to friends of mine - convinced their children were "problematic" or had "special needs" or had some mystery illness, reaction to chemical, an imbalance, a condition, a syndrome, or whatever.  In reality, they were pretty normal kids.  They weren't missing limbs, they weren't blind or deaf (although the deaf are quick to point out that deafness is not a handicap, but just a different way of living - good for them for rejecting the "victim" label!).  These kids didn't have major illnesses or major mental problems, Down's syndrome, severe autism, whatever.

Yet the parents were insistent that there was "something wrong with the Beave" and that they needed a doctor or a special program - or worse yet, a pill - to sort it all out.

Sometimes kids are just normal, and within that normal is a whole range of behaviors, from creepy to clever, from dumb-as-cordwood to Einstein smart.  And sometimes you have to just accept that.

For example, take Suzie.  I knew Suzie and saw her kids grow up over 20 years.  She had two boys.  The younger was smart as a whip, and being younger was largely ignored.  The older boy just wasn't very bright - nothing wrong with that, of course.  He took after his Dad, who was a simple, honest, hardworking man who worked mostly with his hands.  What's wrong with that?

Today in America, plenty.  We are sold on this idea that everyone has to go to college to succeed and Suzie was convinced her firstborn was Harvard material.  He wasn't.

When his grades in school never materialized, she started looking for cures.  First it was some toxins in their environment - she was convinced some disease vector was present in their home and had singled out the one child, and not the other.

She moved onto allergies, even though he displayed no symptoms, other than the usual sneezing we all get in allergy season.

It was dyslexia next - he needed special reading glasses and special education - he was a "special needs student!"  So she demanded he get special training and sued the school district when they would not pay to send him to private school.  Needless to say, this made her popular with the PTA.

It was A.D.D. next - Attention Deficit Disorder.  And like most of these self-diagnoses, she came upon this after watching a television program about it. So off to yet another doctor and specialist and them home with a 'script for Ritalin.

Did any of this work?  Of course not.  The kid was just dumb.  Not a moron, but not a scholar, either.  Rather than thrusting college upon him, she should have been training him for a career in a trade - as his Father did - and he did well, running his own business.

As it was, all this attention made him feel bad - bad about himself and also bad as he was isolated from his schoolmates.  School should have been enjoyable for him, but it was one nightmare after another - and recrimination after recrimination as each "cure" his Mother presented failed to work as advertised, leaving only him to blame for his alleged failure.

He's 25 years old now, and turned out about as you'd expect - he has a job, a house, a wife and a kid, and works hard in sales job.  He is not rocket scientist, but he is no "Rain Man" either.  All the efforts of his Mother to make him into a Baby Einstein failed - and served only to scar him psychologically.

We are so quick to label kids today - to see something "wrong" with them and try to "fix" them like they are disobedient robots.  But people fall into a Bell Curve of behavior patterns, and expecting your kid to fall into a particular slot because you want him to is sure to cause you nothing but grief.

And I recall this sort of thing happening to me as well.  While I got good grades in school, at two points, they wanted to send me back a year - in Kindergarten and in 4th grade.  The Kindergarten teacher thought I was retarded, as I did things differently that the other kids.

In one test, we were presented with four items and asked to find the items that were alike.  The items were a fire truck, a dump truck, a car, and a tomato.  The answer they wanted was the three vehicles being grouped together.  However, I picked the fire truck and tomato, as both were red.  This may sound like unconventional thinking, but bear in mind that we were supposed to select the items using colored crayons, and so I naturally colored in the like items with my red crayon.  Was I retarded, or just answering a very ambiguous question in a different, but correct way?

In 4th grade, the teacher wanted to flunk me, because I could not memorize the multiplication tables.  The stupidest kids in school memorized these easily - memorization is not learning, but just monkey-work.  To this day, I have to sort out 7 x 6 in my head.  But that didn't stop me from taking three semesters of Calculus, Differential Equations, and Number Theory.  And I'll bet all you smart asses who say "well everyone knows that 7 x 6 is 42" don't even know what a Differential Equation is.  Rote knowledge and intelligence are two different things, and yet, this 4th grade teacher was all-too-quick to label me.

(And in a world of irony and Karma, a decade later, I would be taking Number Theory in College with one of my High School Math teachers as a fellow student.  She failed, I passed!  Who's the 'tard now?)

And who knows?  Today, they would have labeled away, no doubt saying I had Asberger Syndrome or some such nonsense (which would explain the whole special shoe fiasco).  And no doubt, drugs would be prescribed or some other effort to make me "normal" would be instituted.

Indeed, they say one reason the number of Autistic children in this country is on the rise is that the diagnosis of Autism has been expanded to include far more children, including so-called "Mild Autism."    When you go looking for trouble - or a label - you are likely to find it.  And since these labels are often so vague and hard to quantify, you can slap them on just about anyone, particularly if it makes a nervous parent happy and gets them out of your office, at last.

Fortunately, I escaped my childhood, or at least survived it - and withstood the attempts at "correction" that so many try to make.  And yea, they even sent me to Speech Therapy Lab in the first grade.  But despite all my alleged health problems and school problems, I managed to get an Electrical Engineering degree and a Law Degree.  Not bad for a retard who can't do his maths.

Oddly enough, oftentimes the things parents should be paying attention to are ignored - like diet.  Shirley has a rambunctious boy who tears the house apart and is a terror in school.  Surely there is something wrong with the lad - allegries?  Toxic chemicals?  A.D.D.?

As she regales me with the latest diagnosis, her boy slurps down yet another Coca-Cola - the fourth in 15 minutes.  He is dehydrated, and the only liquid in the house is loaded with 200 calories of sugar - or worse, high fructose corn syrup.  Worse yet, he has just drunk the equivalent of five cups of coffee!  Parents say stupid things like "No Coffee for the kids!  It's a grown-up beverage!" and then hand the kid an entire six-pack of Pepsi, or a 64-ounce jug of it.

For dinner that night?  Pizza or pasta, some meat, no vegetables.  The kid is jumping from one sugar high to another.

Could diet be a factor in his behavior?  Nah! she says, it has to be hormones or something.  The doctor has a pill for it.

Fast-forward 15 years and the boy has grown up pretty much OK.  He has calmed down a bit, to be sure, but the legacy of being a "troubled youth" throughout school does follow him around.  Maybe less Ritalin and more Broccoli would have been a better Rx.

Like I said, one can sort of understand this obsession, as you are charged with caring for another human life - and it seems daunting and you want to do the best job you can.  But sometimes, this spills over into something far darker and more dangerous - Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy.

People get enamored of the process oftentimes - regardless of what the process is.  And if you have a "sick kid" that has to go to the doctor all the time, or a "special needs" child that needs special classes and glasses, then it does give a parent an identity and function in life.  They are like the friend with the perpetual problem.  "I can't stay for coffee!" one says, "Billy has an appointment with his specialist!"

Suddenly they are no longer a housewife, but a concerned Mother with a defined role to play.

Why is this sort of nonsense dangerous?  Well, it hurts the kids, to be sure.  Once you are labeled with a syndrome or problem or imagined illness, it is all too easy to lose self-esteem, or worse yet, learn to externalize your problems at an early age.  For the parent, these games are a time bandit as well as another ploy for victim-hood - and victims never really win at their games, they just end up bitter and disappointed. And of course the costs of all this can be staggering.

So how do you avoid this trap?  Stop listening to TeeVee shows that try to scare you into self-diagnosing your children.  Don't take the "simple 10-step test" in the Woman's magazine to see if your kid is A.D.D.  - just leave him alone.  If he gets in trouble at school, don't go looking for deep meanings - maybe he just had a bad day - or too much soda pop.  And if he isn't a straight-A student, maybe he isn't going to be the next Stephen Hawking.   Relax, there are worse thing that can happen in the world.

Just be happy that your kid has the requisite number of limbs, eyes, and toes (or a close approximation thereof) and let the rest of it slide.  They will grow up in spite of your best efforts and playing "Mommy Dearest" isn't going to make things better or easier for either of you.