I have to admit to some skepticism when it comes to new medical disorders. Take ADD, for instance. There is no way that such a disorder could magically pop up about fifteen to twenty years ago, and affect over 10% of our boys, when decades ago it wasn’t a problem. Boys like that were simply called “busy”, or even “troublemakers”, but they were dealt with. And they did not constitute 10% of the male population.
Now I know that ADD is a real medical condition; friends of mine have struggled with their kids through it, and for them Ritalin has been a godsend. But that doesn’t mean that every busy child is wired wrong. True ADD, I think, is the exception, not the rule. Many kids are easily distracted and hyperactive without a biological cause, and you don’t have to look very hard to find an environmental one. Society has changed in fundamental ways over the last decade or two, and I think that is affecting our children’s—and especially our boys’—abilities to concentrate. In short, we are training for distraction.
If you want kids to behave and pay attention, you need to give them structure. From a very young age, kids need to be taught what is expected of them, when it is expected of them, and the consequences for not complying. In fact, structure, far from being constricting and cruel, gives kids the freedom to grow because they feel safe. To kids, the world is huge and scary. If they at least understand their own small corner of it, they feel more relaxed and can thrive. If they don’t, they act out. It’s that simple.
At one time, most families ate dinner together at 5:30. Kids knew whose turn it was to clear the table. Bedtimes were set, and kids would lobby to get these extended. I remember the year I was eleven arguing with my mother that I should be allowed to stay up until 8:30 so that I could watch Happy Days. Evenings were for adults, not kids, and we knew that.
We don’t give kids that kind of structure anymore. Today, mealtimes are often haphazard, stressful, or conducted through the drive-thru while running back and forth to lessons. And bedtimes seem to have disappeared along with eight track tapes. Children may be sent to their rooms, but in those rooms are likely televisions and computers, so kids may not drift off right away. The American National Sleep Foundation reports that the average school aged child gets 1.5 hours less sleep a night than is recommended, and only 20% of teenagers get sufficient sleep at night. And boys get far less sleep than girls do, though they need just as much. Since lack of sleep has been linked to hyperactivity, it’s little wonder kids are acting out.
In defence of parents, though, I do think providing structure is harder today than it once was. Life is simply busier. More people work strange hours, so family dinnertime is harder to achieve. I know the days that both my girls are enrolled in something, eating is often done on the run, even though I swear that family dinners are important! And when both parents work, people often keep their kids up later because evening is the only time they get to spend with them. Just because it’s hard, though, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
But there’s one other major change in our children’s structure that probably does even more harm. Families are falling apart. A study published in the Journal of Vital Health Statistics found that four-year-olds living with both married parents were three times less likely to have ADD than four-year-olds living in any other kind of household. With all the shuttling back and forth between baby-sitters and parents and grandparents, and getting used to Mom’s new boyfriend or new strep-siblings, kids lose something vital.
Is ADD a real problem? For many, it definitely is. But for far more, I think we have just simply lost sight that children need structure and discipline far more than they need toys and gadgets. And until they get that structure back, we’re going to have more and more kids who can’t pay attention.
The family, however, is not the only institution that can train our kids to distraction. Next week, we’ll look at why boys so often can’t cope in today’s classrooms.