Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Invest in Families, Not Meds

We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.
     -- Dr. Michael Anderson, quoted in today's NYT

If that quote doesn't send chills up your spine, I don't know what will.

Dr. Anderson (and other docs, also quoted in the NYT) are prescribing ADHD medications -- stimulants -- to  help young, low-income kids function in school.

Photo by Arenamontanous via Flickr
Let me repeat that again: Doctors are prescribing high-powered stimulant medication to young children because, in many cases, they feel it's the kids' best chance. These kids are poor. They live in low-income communities and attend low-income, often poor-quality, schools. And our politicians and public have decided that it's far too expensive to improve the kids' living circumstances or schools, so these kids are living -- and trying to learn -- in sub-par environments. The kids' school environment isn't likely to change. The families' financial situations are not likely to change. So the docs are using one of the only tools at their disposal: they're prescribing stimulant medication, which has been shown to improve school performance. These docs know that education is the kids' best chance at a better future, and they knew that the odds of the schools and communities suddenly meeting the very real needs of these kids and families is infintesimal. So they prescribe the meds.

 “We might not know the long-term effects [of stimulant use in young children], but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now," Dr. Anderson says in the NYT article, Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School.

I am outraged. Outraged! OUTRAGED!

We value our children so little in this society that we would rather stuff drugs into their young bodies and brains than invest in programs and policies that could improve their world.

And boys may be disproportionately feeling the effects of this resistance to investing in kids' well-being. According to The Boys Initiative, 3 times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with ADHD. Who knows how many of them actually have ADHD, and how many are simply prescribed the drugs as a way of helping them fit into an educational mold that doesn't fully consider their needs? In the Times article, Dr. Anderson says "the children he sees with academic problems are essentially 'mismatched with their environment.'"

I've written before about the mis-match between boys and school. (Most recently, in Boys & School.)
And I've written before about the need to support families if we want children to succeed in school. (Most recently, in Supporting Families & Education.)

But I'm frustrated. I can write about these topics until my fingers are numb, but unless and until our society begins to recognize the importance of families, and value children, it will all be for naught. Our children, and our boys in particular, will continue to suffer.

We can talk all day about the importance of individual responsbility, and the role of government, and still get nowhere. Because at the end of the day, American is still a country that is long on talk and short on support. We say our children are the future, but vote down school referendums, demonize teachers and stash our children in big-box institutions that may or may not meet our kids' needs so we can work and earn the almighty dollar. We say that parenthood is an honorable profession, but refuse to support policies that would allow parents to spend meaningful time with their children.

We refuse to admit that raising great kids takes time. And we refuse to admit that it's important to invest in all kids.

Kids in poor neighborhoods are not throw-aways. They are kids, just like yours. It doesn't matter what their parents did or didn't do. It doesn't matter what their grandparents did or didn't do. What matters is that they have needs and desires and potential, and we, as a society, as turning away from them.

We are stuffing meds down their gullet instead of working to improve their lives.

That has to stop.

I can't stop this neglect alone. But I can, and will, write about it. I can, and will, work within my community to make sure that families have the resources they need to thrive. And I can -- and will -- vote for policies and politicians that support kids and families.

Our kids deserve support, not pharmaceutical shortcuts.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Musings on Manhood

My friend, Dr. Marcus Jackson, a middle school principal and writer, is currently surveying men about their definition of manhood. (If you're a guy, and have something you'd like to share, post your thoughts in the comments below.)

I'm intrigued by his survey, so I posted his question on my Facebook page. One of my brothers said Rudyard Kipling had already perfected that assignment in If. I hadn't read the poem in awhile, so I took another look. And you know what? I think Kipling and my brother are right on. Take a look and let me know what you think.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Boys & School

If you've been following this blog for awhile, you know that my boys were homeschooled, and that all four of them are now in school full-time. If you're new here, well, you just found out.

The transition to school is going fine, for the most part. But let me tell you: My reasons for homeschooling remain as valid as ever. Homeschooling, I believe, gives kids the chance to follow and learn from their passions. School too often squishes passions and interests at the altar of standardized achievement.

The Red Zone

Case in point: My 6-year-old son, a passionate, self-motivated learner got in trouble at school the other day. Why? Because he was squirmy and talkative and social. You can read more about it over at Boys and Young Men: Attention Must Be Paid.

Here's an excerpt:

Not even one month into the school year, my son got in trouble – major, Red-level trouble – for moving, talking and socializing. The school gets into no trouble whatsoever for failing to provide my son with a learning environment that engages him, that takes into account his needs and knowledge and learning style.

The Red incident happened two days ago. Yesterday, the same son came home with what looked like a massive black-and-yellow bruise on his lower abdomen at belt level. After some talking, I that my son found an unopened black walnut outside at recess. (Never seen one? They look like this:

My nature-loving son wanted to play with them. But the bell was ringing, so he jammed one into the waistband of his underwear. His belt and jeans held the black walnut firmly in place, through at least half of gym class. And -- as you may have guessed by now -- stained his skin.

Later, I asked what he wanted to do with the black walnut.

"Throw it," he said.

Such a simple request. But he's in an environment that a) only offers limited time outside, b) provides very little time for free play and c) frowns upon the throwing of objects. One month into the school year, my son has internalized those facts. And resorted to smuggling black walnuts in his shorts.

How School Squelches Boys & Men

I tell myself he will be fine, and for the most part, he will. Fortunately, he still has two loving parents who read to him, who take him interesting places and who make sure he gets plenty of time in the woods and in fields. But I can't help but wonder how much more interesting (and joyous) his learning path would be if he was allowed to follow his own interests, instead of squashing them in the service of organized, institutional learning. And I can't help but feel sad inside for all the boys who know nothing more than school. In every school, there are boys, like my son, who are squashing their natural desires and curiosity to pursue educational goals that seem meaningless to them.

That's not to say that education, or even institutional education, is worthless. It is to say that learning, real learning, works best when coupled with real life.

Some will say that little boys (such as my son) need to learn how to sit down, be quiet and follow directions. And I agree: they do. But I'd argue that the pace matters. I'd argue that there's no harm whatsoever -- and many benefits -- to letting young boys (such as my son) learn through movement and active play and exploration. No harm at all in letting young boys gradually grow into self-control.

It will happen. I have seen countless, homeschooled boys grown into polite, well-mannered, socially-adjusted young men -- without ever sitting in a circle on a rug, filling out countless worksheets or losing recess.

What are your thoughts regarding boys and school?