The Disease Called Boy

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I always had a bit of uncertainty about being a father; even during my inebriated twenties I understood the buzz kill children could regularly become. But while my leaning fluttered between surrender, after a baby shower (which those for couples should be strictly forbidden), and mortal fear at the sight of friends’ mundane sleep deprived existences, one thing was certain; should I voluntarily cut short my Saturdays at the sports bar for play dates and birthday parties, I didn’t want it to be on account of a boy. The idea of a having a son sent my mind racing with visits to principal’s offices and youth detention centers, the administrators of which I was sure to become well acquainted.

I was raised with buttercup fantasies, unintentional, as they were, that girls represented everything pure and beautiful, while boys characterized the precise opposite. Boys were bullies who broke hearts, stole my Matchbox Cars and were kicked out of school. To my twenty three year old mind (which is equivalent to that of a seventeen year old girl), having a son seemed to boil down to one question, whether it’s better to set aside funds for a college account or bail money.

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My son will attain the ripe age, in Internet years anyway, of 10 later this month and I’m happy to say that at the current pace he should have just enough savings to attend a world class technical college or buy a used low mileage Accord. But more importantly, in all this time he hasn’t taken a medication more potent than Amoxicillin.

Both of which, it seems by today’s standard, is quite the miracle.

In a recent NY Times op-ed two UC Berkeley professors and authors of ‘The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money and Today’s Push for Performance’, explain,

By age 17, nearly one in five American boys have been told that they have A.D.H.D. A 40 percent increase from a decade ago and more than double the rate 25 years ago.

The authors trace this rise in parental hard-ons for doping kids to a ‘push for performance’ in school. Furthermore some of the blame is put on pediatricians who the professors say are quick to identify and treat for ADHD “after an initial visit of 20 minutes or even less”.

By contrast another article in The Economist says behavioral science itself is provoking the problem. The American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual, published last year, “eased the guidelines for identifying ADHD. It instructs psychiatrists to look out for children who, among other things, are reluctant to do homework, who lose school books and who are fidgety”; or put another way, every child that’s ever lived.

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Several years ago my ex wife and I had bit of an episode after it was thought our son might have ADHD. Some children are purportedly born with gender confusion; he is not one of them. A boy down to the subatomic level, his every pore emanates with a buoyancy that is a staple of his character. Since he was old enough to walk he has been in motion, he finds an indescribable joy at using our sofa and chairs as a parkour park, and anything that doesn’t hold his attention is swiftly cast aside. I’ve even witnessed first hand what many parents only dream of  – a child voluntarily turning off the television to open book.

What amazed me most during the whole furor was how quick many were to diagnose the ailment and prescribe a remedy.  There seemed a willingness, actually an eagerness, to medicate him into something more manageable and into what can only be a greater likeness of the calm demure nature of his sister. When she and I talked of the doctor’s opinion, I was as adamant as I was blunt, ‘there is no way we are putting our son on drugs, simply because he is acting like a boy.’

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I can’t help but wonder as he’s learning to control some of that intensity and subdue his raucousness  – through nothing more than his growing up and our parenting – if this zeal to pump our kids full of drugs isn’t more of an indictment of our selfishness than a willingness to help them?

Is it possible that this growing desire to medicate our children is merely a logical next step for a society where one in 10 Americans now take an antidepressant – with women in their 40s and 50s sitting at one in four? When we seem to struggle dealing with the normal human condition of relationships, stress, and sadness, how can the mother who finds a perverse enjoyment reaching for ‘mommy’s little helper’ to get through the day not be just as insistent on similar chemicals that will get her son focused on his homework and not sliding down the stairs? If there’s no qualm with parents taking 50mg of synthetic happiness to smooth the edges off reality why are we shocked when we demand a similar antidote to keep a fidgety child in his seat?

Boyhood with its beautiful restlessness, curiosity, and vitality isn’t a disease that needs a remedy because it doesn’t sustain some lofty desire for a carefree ordered life. But our trigger happy willingness to medicate anyone for anything because it offers the quickest fix and is covered by insurance only goes to show our boys that they are indeed a sickness in need of a cure.

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