My kid was always “that kid.” You know the one: the biter, the hitter, the pincher. The one who, when a fellow two-year-old took his toy away, would respond by bopping the kid on the head.
We spent more than an average amount of time in conferences with his daycare and preschool teachers. In kindergarten, we had fewer conferences -- but we had weekly emails home to inform us that Oliver was not paying attention during circle time.
I have never been the kind of parent who thinks her kid is so precious that I don’t believe it when a teacher tells me he has behaved inappropriately. I know he’s a turd, and I’ve witnessed his turdiness firsthand. He is not perfect, and I don’t expect him to be. He’s my turd, and I love him.
Now Oliver is seven years old. In addition to being seven, he is also bright, hilarious, thoughtful and eager to learn. He is not a reclusive bookworm, as I was at his age, but an extroverted, chatty, engaging presence who prefers the company of other people.
His first word was “hi” and as a toddler, he would say it to everyone -- I mean everyone -- within earshot, and would get upset if an adult didn’t respond to his attempt at communication. He’s also the kind of kid who introduces himself to other kids at the park, or if he sees another child playing by herself, invites her to play.
But he's also kind of a spaz and can't sit still. He’s outgrown the hitting and biting, but he sits at the dinner table with one butt cheek on the chair and the other half of him ready to bolt at a moment's notice. There is some body part that is always moving or jiggling or wiggling about.
His energy levels continue to astound me; just when I think he must be worn out from playing outside for two hours, he asks if we can go to the park.
For years I tried to quell it by telling him to not jump off that thing or stop poking that other thing with a stick. In the last couple of years I finally “got” it, and I can recognize that he not only wants to jump off things; he needs to.
I am not usually the parent who takes him to the skate park, because as his mother, I just cannot handle the stress of watching him zip through the bowl of the concrete skate run, speed up a six-foot wall and ollie at the top. But his dad understands and encourages Oliver’s need for a physical outlet, and that is better for all of us.
We (the ex and I) took him to a psychiatrist at the urging of his teachers and caregivers, and after getting a recommendation from his pediatrician for a good shrink who would not just hand us a prescription for anti-spaz medication.
Of course, he was diagnosed with ADHD. Of course he was. Doesn’t every other kid now have it? I hate to sound like somebody's ornery grandpa (wait, no, I kind of like that), but back in my day (the 80s), kids at school didn't have ADHD.
Sure, there might be one kid who was “hyperactive,” but it was considered to be just another degree in the wide spectrum of normal child behavior. And in fact, research indicates that an increase in the ADHD diagnosis in recent years is not just my perception.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006, and an average of 5.5% per year from 2003 to 2007, with parent-reported cases increasing 22% during that same time. And twice as many boys are diagnosed with ADHD.
When we got the diagnosis, my main concern was that medication would be recommended. I did not want to medicate Oliver’s developing brain. Having met some children who are on ADHD medication, I knew that I did not want to turn my child into a watered-down version of himself, or worse yet, a personality-less zombie. I would rather deal with his high energy than see his totally bizarre sense of humor and quick mind dulled by Adderall.
Fortunately, the psychiatrist didn’t recommend medication. He recommended a two-step approach: 1) keep Oliver away from sugar, preservatives and food dyes (we were already doing some of that), and 2) monitor his behavior and use a disciplinary system that would deliver an immediate consequence for any undesirable behavior.
And as we were sitting there in the shrink’s office, listening to his approach, I thought, don’t these things apply to all kids? Shouldn’t we, as parents, be doing these things anyway?
The doctor also said that if Oliver’s behavior was so disruptive to his class that his teacher couldn’t deal with it, that would be the time we would discuss medication. Much to my surprise, the doctor also said that most kids “outgrow” ADHD by the time they graduate from high school.
Wait, what? If there is something chemically wrong with my kid’s brain, why would it suddenly disappear as he matures? And then I had an epiphany: Maybe the problem with my kid, and with many kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD, is not really an issue of “bad” kids with “problems” but of parents and educators who are too stressed and busy to deal with individual personalities that do not fit into the neat little boxes we need them to be in.
Let’s face it, with classrooms bursting at the seams, often with 30 kids per class, how can a teacher be expected to teach in a way that will honor each individual student’s way of learning? Isn’t it easier to proclaim that a kid has trouble focusing on the task at hand, and give him some medication to keep him in line?
And with most two-parent households consisting of two parents who work full-time (and in large urban areas like Los Angeles, have long commutes) and have their own stresses and obligations, combined with very little time in the evenings to spend with their children, help with homework, make dinner, clean up and get everyone to bed on time...well, isn’t it easier to administer a prescription than to deal with behavior problems through more active parenting?
This is not to say that ADHD is not a legitimate diagnosis for some kids, and I do not wish to minimize a very real problem that exists for some parents and children. I just don’t think that ALL of the kids who receive such a diagnosis are diagnosed correctly.
So we took the diagnosis with a grain of salt. We were given a survey for his first grade teacher to complete and return to us so that we could compare her notes with our own observations and the psychiatrist's. As if Oliver’s overworked teacher didn't have enough to deal with already, what with teaching a hard and fast curriculum to 30 kids, administering forced standardized testing and assigning 30 minutes worth of homework each night (to first graders!). Thanks, No Child Left Behind!
But when we approached Oliver's teacher, a gruff silver-haired woman close to retirement, about his ADHD diagnosis, something interesting happened.
Me: So...Oliver may have ADHD.
Teacher: Psssshhhh [waving her hand]
Me: We have this survey...
Teacher: [rolling her eyes]. HE'S A BOY.
I almost cried. Not from sadness or frustration, but from crystal clear, miraculous relief. Seriously, the angels sang as this wise older woman, who had taught generations of children, confirmed that my kid is not, in fact, a bad seed, but just another energetic child, a kid no different from the 30 years’ worth of first graders she has taught.
In my experience, most caregivers, teachers and school systems do not encourage or understand the needs of high energy children. Opportunities for physical activity are limited, with physical education viewed in some schools as a non-essential activity. In my son’s school, running is not allowed on the playground (I know, right?!).
But a kid like mine, with boundless energy, has a need (a real need) for multiple physical outlets throughout the day. Remember how I said he sits at the dinner table with one butt cheek on the chair and one foot on the floor, ready to bolt? It’s how he sits in class, too.
The other day he had a substitute teacher who told him twice to sit straight in his chair, but alas, he could not, and we received an official disciplinary report home that day. Yes, a written disciplinary report, for not sitting straight in his chair, nevermind that he was not being disruptive in other ways.
This is what we are doing to our children. We are placing expectations on them that are unrealistic. We do not want children to be kids, we want them to be miniature adults who fall in line when asked the first time. And when they don’t, we label them as bad seeds, we take them to doctors who diagnose them with ADHD, and maybe we medicate them so that they are easier to handle.
Except I (and, I believe, many other parents) do not place these expectations on my kid. I know he is not perfect, and I don’t expect him to be. I expect him to make mistakes, to say the wrong thing, to use his outside voice at inappropriate times, to not want to pay attention to the teacher when the weather outside is so beautiful and he would rather be skateboarding.
I expect all these things because he is a child and he is the kind of child who needs to burp the alphabet and run laps around the playground until he runs out of breath. I also expect him to be kind and loving and smart and open, because he is all of those things as well. He is a complex seven-year-old with an excellent brain, and he makes up his own surrealist knock-knock jokes and can build a 1,000-piece LEGO set unassisted.
I’m not sure yet what needs to happen to make sure that he isn’t labeled as “that kid” when he goes to second grade next year and no longer has the awesome silver-haired teacher whose expectations of seven-year-old children matches mine.
But I fear that the range of normal, which felt so wide when I was a rowdy, misbehaving kid, gets more and more narrow each year. I turned out OK, and my kid will, too. Without the ADHD label, thanks.