Tears, and Identity,
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
Before I was married I had a hundred theories about raising children. Now, I have three children
and no theories.
Science Enchants the World
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age