When my little boy started first grade we faced a crisis. He had weathered kindergarten just fine. Back in those days, kindergarten was only three hours long with rest time included. First grade shockingly confined him to a desk all day (not literally, but it seemed so to him), after which my low-key, B-personality son burst out of the building totally wired. Not to worry, his teacher assured me: Boys starting first grade often had adjustments to make. She said that for the first few weeks it wasn’t uncommon for them to cry after lunch when told they had to stay another three hours.
I’m reminded of that when reading of an extensive study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which determined that about one-in-five teenage boys and 11 percent of all school-age children have been diagnosed, at one time or other, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The ADHD diagnosis has been controversial since the early 1990s, especially as it can’t be medically determined—no chemical imbalance that can be traced in the blood, for instance. A physician (who’s possibly overworked) usually makes the diagnosis based on testimony from parents and teachers. If ADHD is a true medical syndrome it’s estimated to affect 3 to 7 percent of children, nowhere near the levels reported by the CDC.
That diagnosis usually comes with a prescription for a methylphenidate, usually Ritalin or Adderall. These psycho-stimulants work by moderating levels of dopamine in the brain, which increases attention and the ability to focus. It’s understandable how desperate parents and teachers push for an ADHD diagnosis with that ride-to-the-rescue prescription, and the drugs usually have beneficial short-term effects. Long-term effects haven’t been determined, but the fact that methylphenidate bears a structural relationship to cocaine should give some pause.
The gateway potential of methylphenidate is a real concern, as is the over-stimulation (increasing noise levels, TV, video games) of contemporary life in America. But I believe the relentless labeling and drugging implies a basic disrespect for masculine nature. Though some girls are diagnosed with ADHD, it’s overwhelmingly a “disorder” of boys—boys being boys, in most cases. They were not made to sit in a classroom for six hours per day at the age of 5. Unless preconditioned or drugged, they burst into tears and beg to go home. They need to be outside playing in tree houses and organizing their own baseball leagues and exploring the woods—even just being quiet by themselves. Before electronic diversions and mandated activities, they used to have time after school to blow off some healthy steam and get ready for the next day. But now their time is regulated and even school recess is curtailed or eliminated to make more time for testing and test preparation.
That’s one reason why, in the middle of first grade, we pitied our little boy’s tears and brought him home. Not every parent can do that, but if a teacher suggests her boy be tested for ADHD, she might want to think twice.