Childhood: the abridged version

I love magazines, but before I read them I usually pull out dozens of postcards. Recently I was surprised to see how many offer tapes and information on medications that address Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children.

As a school psychologist often involved in the determination of who might have ADD, I have mixed feelings about this direct marketing to parents. I like to see parents well informed about all aspects of dealing with their children, but I worry that the ads might present a cure where in many cases no illness exists.

I have seen medication, properly used, improve the lives of some children. On the other hand, I have seen a drastic change in what people consider "normal." This trend to medicate children may be more a symptom of a societal ill than an indication of a childhood condition.

In my 25 years as a psychologist, I've seen the expectations for children rise unreasonably. I've seen the normal variations in temperament viewed as pathology. I have seen busy, energetic kids become a major nuisance to teachers who themselves are expected to do too much. And I've seen parents consider themselves failures because they haven't enrolled their children in SAT preparation classes by ninth grade.

My profession is to protect children; my passion is to protect childhood. I think so many young people in their early 20s have trouble transitioning to adulthood because they never fully experienced childhood. There has been no carefree place to run and play and get messy and make mistakes without dire consequences. So as they approach adulthood, they look back longingly at something they wish they'd had.

Ironically children are often given the "perks" of adulthood so the value of "when you're a grown-up" has diminished. I believe our society would be a healthier place if childhood were a marketing-free zone, where 7-year-olds weren't even aware of the brands of their clothing. I wish no child were used as the perfectly trained, dressed, and coifed accessory of his or her parent. But our children are consumers in training. To protect them we must be examples of knowing what is truly important, of making thoughtful use of our resources, whether large or small. We must help them become aware of and care about the needs of others.

Another major source of anxiety about our children's behavior is other parents. In this hypercompetitive society, parents can be so critical of each other's children - and so delighted when they see them err. In workshops, I remind parents that we all get our turn. We should be careful not to be too smug, for our little darling may someday surprise us with bad behavior, and then we will be grateful for the kind understanding of other parents.

There must be room in childhood - and adulthood - for variations in temperament and nature. For some kids in the classroom, it takes all the strength and courage they have to stand up and speak. For others, it takes all the strength they have to sit down and shut up. Yet we judge both with the same yardstick.

Children can be impulsive, naughty, and clueless. It takes endless perseverance and patience to keep them on track. We do them great harm, however, when we ascribe evil intent - and sometimes pathology - to this behavior. We're the mirrors they use to judge themselves by. If we reflect back an image of someone who is a work in progress and trying to do better, they will follow our lead.

It is heartbreaking to see the harsh judgments made of little children. I would like to see "zero tolerance" for adult stupidity in dealing with youngsters. It is quite possible to motivate and discipline in a kind way. These are the people who may someday be pushing our wheelchairs around. I'm more concerned with them being kindhearted than being No. 1 in their class.

This drug business is just a symptom, but the illness is in our hands to treat - in the way we treat children.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

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