Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Tears, and Identity, and Concerta

John Bedell

The week before school started this fall we put our ten-year-old son back on Concerta, which is a time-released form of Ritalin.  We had to do this a little early because he had to do some summer reading, and in the previous two Ritalin-free months he had not read anything longer than the text on a trading card.  Our attempt to get him to finish a book he had started in the spring ended in tears.  After less than two days back on his medication he had read over a hundred pages and that afternoon he came waltzing through the living room saying, "Mom, Dad, this is a really good book."  My wife and I looked at each other and said, "We should do a commercial."

This little vignette is just a sample of the extraordinary effects these pills have had on our son.  He vaulted from the lowest reading group to the highest, his grades have improved, his test scores are way up.  It isn't just his performance that has improved, though, but his attitude and the way he feels about school.  He used to end up crying over his homework more often than not; now homework time is tear-free. Things that once made him miserable with frustration now cause him no problems at all.  Even his soccer has improved.  

This has been an eye-opening experience for me because I had always been philosophically against the large-scale drugging of children.  Once a class of sixth graders visited one of my archaeological sites, and some time in the middle of the day one of the teachers got out her black bag and distributed Ritalin to what seemed like at least a tenth of the students.  I found it creepy.  (The advantage of Concerta is that you only take it once a day.)  I read about treating normal boyish behavior with medication; I read about the invention of psychological conditions and the abuse involved in treating so many different and unique children as sufferers from the single condition of ADHD, with only one possible outcome for those so identified:  Ritalin.  All these complaints seemed wise to me.  Now, though, all my philosophical qualms have been swept away by the sight of my son getting his work done without struggling to the point of exhaustion.  

Some questions still hang in the air.  I wonder, are we really doing our son a favor by medicating him?  Is there some hidden cost to his stress reduction?  Perhaps, as some people have said, the use of medication to control their frustration keeps children from learning to control themselves without drugs.  Perhaps there is something else we could have done, some combination of patience, support, and meditation that could have enabled him to cope without drugs. Or maybe I should think that he is who he is, and my task as his father is to love him, not try to change him.  I love to read, but maybe he just wasn't born to be a reader, and should I really be giving him pills to turn him into one?  Maybe the real problem is expecting fourth graders to do so much homework in the first place, and I should be devoting my efforts to creating an educational system that would be kinder and more accepting of my son.  

I can only say that I do not run the world, and I do not think it would be doing our son any favors to try to carve out a special place for him protected from its rigors.  With or without drugs, he has to live in twenty-first century America, homework and all.  As for love, what does that mean?  Should a parent just practice passive acceptance, or should we work actively to make our children happy?  No doubt there are many times when parents, instead of trying to help, should stand aside and let their children struggle on their own.  But when the choice is between a tears of frustration and "this is a really good book," who can hesitate?

September 12, 2003


From the 
Commonplace Book

Before I was married I had a hundred theories about raising children. Now, I have three children and no theories.

--John Wilmot


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