The Wild, Children, the Not-Right Mind and Drugs

My sister Kim recently had a baby. The care and attention she gives Bennett is a little strange to see. After all, she is my sister, and this is a range of completely new behavior that her brother hasn’t witnessed since he was defacing and unnaturally contorting her dolls so many years ago.

I’ve written before about the profound honesty children can compel from you, just by looking into their eyes — their minds and hearts such an open, pristine landscape, taking in all that they see, touch and hear around them. I’ve described the compulsion and weight toward the responsibility of allowing their own discovery to occur, unbiased by the baggage we each might build and carry along with us on our long journeys through our lives.

Yet, as a more distant observer than a parent, I am free from the burden of shaping the child’s minds into the conformity necessary for them to exist as a being amid other beings. I am not required to commit any act of coercion which in any way subjugates their will to my own, or in any way forces my perceptions or my requirements upon their otherwise “pristine” unfolding into the world.

As someone who is not a parent, I am not required to cause or influence another being to change or evolve into what I believe is necessary or right. Nor am I required to influence another in fundamental ways so that I might find peace for myself, or by degrees, so that I might ensure this being will find peace for themselves.

It is obvious different parents approach raising their children with different methods, or even no methods whatsoever. Individually, it is personally revealing just how one chooses to engage within their parenthood role. Often we see the generational influences, flowing back to the parent’s own mother and father, and theirs, and so on. The behavioural influences, both environmental and genetic, continue to fan out upon the world.

But of course, as any parent would say, there is the day-to-day practical side. The struggle to keep children’s mouths away from globs of spilled cleaning chemicals, or their fingers far from the fascinating exploration of electrical outlets. Or simply to keep their shrill voices from drilling into your brain, day after night, month after year.

Not so long ago, parents were often blamed for such things as schizophrenia and autism in their children. However, our growing understanding of biology has brought the medical profession away from this. Now, we turn to chemistry to alleviate many wrongs.

A few months ago, my brother-in-law Jon left a Golden Retriever puppy here. That would be Spencer. He’s proven to be a very strange dog. Even though no abuse has fallen upon him, he fears larger objects. He cowers and runs from a bottle of olive oil. He happily plays with a tennis ball, but a soccer ball rolling toward him will send his tonailed paws wildly scuttling in all directions on the hardwood floor, trying to escape its vector. But, to his credit, he does enjoy yoga.

My father imbues Spencer with an anthropomorphic existence: Spencer reasons, has moods, will get angry, will be sweet and loving — Spencer basically knows what’s up. He wakes my dad up in the morning, expects human food, and requires firm obedience from my father.

Spencer and I have a different relationship. I most certainly give him all the benefits of the doubt that he has his own perception of the world, and his own inner workings. His affection is undeniable. But I know Spencer is a dog, having limited mental capacity within the realm of survival in our human world that is so swiftly surrounding and encroaching upon our small oasis of nature in which we live. He needs to obey us, to survive.

Just last night a UPS truck delivered a package to our home. As my dad opened the door, Spencer pushed past him to take off running into the night, disappearing into the darkness. If I were to have opened the door, Spencer would not have done such a thing. When I walk out to the car with Spencer to take him to the store with me, he happily follows along, gets in the car, and we travel on our merry way. When my father attempts to take him to the car without a leash, Spencer immediately disappears into brush and the neighborhood and will not return until he’s ready, even if I am calling.

I have spent a good deal of time interacting with Spencer in ways that make it clear to him I understand him and expect things from him. And Spencer most certainly has a basic understanding of me, so much so that verbal commands are pretty much not required any longer. There is no doubt he enjoys this intimacy. But the communication had to built over time with a great attention to detail and the establishment of solid mechanisms for interaction.

When Spencer goes wild in his excitement over something, it’s very fun to share that with him. But there are times when he must curb his enthusiasm and this can be communicated very easily by just eye contact and intent. Such things are the result of a particularly close and invested time together, where a mutual understanding exists, within the limited terms of his cognitive scope.

Our human children a somewhat more complex, however. They are challenging, requiring far more time and commitment than a dog. Their minds will evolve to the same cognitive complexity as our own. Some parents will want to do everything for them to insure they’re happy. Other parents will want them to develop independently, still giving the parent freedom to be themselves.

But all parents will experience problems with their children. They will experience mental/emotionally based challenges and physically based challenges. It seems to me that keeping a close, direct link to the child’s eyes and heart, and not just keeping the child’s behaviour in line with ideals, is critical to achieve a balanced life for both the child, and the parents.

So often, parents with seemingly feral children turn to the medical world for a solution to problems they are facing with their children. Like all facets of our population, the application of drugs to address problems continues to rise, happily dispensed by the doctors and companies and happily adopted by the people in crisis for a quick fix of the symptoms stemming from a cause.

Interestingly, ADHD is diagnosed most often in male children right around the time their hormones start kicking in for puberty, around the age of 12. And they are given drugs. Between 1989 and 2000 there was a 381% increase in the diagnosis of ADHD at hospitals. The drugs are expensive.

Recently alternative treatments have arisen, such as the use of the stimulant caffeine. Dietary changes are becoming more credible to address ADHD, such as the addition of zinc, omega-3 or the avoidance of artificial colors and flavors, and synthetic preservatives.

Even more encouraging are the results the psychology community are having using behavioural techniques. They involve the parent in paying close attention to the child, rewarding and praising them for right behavior, and intelligently applying constructive punitive measures upon wrong behavior. It’s not as quick and easy as a pill, but the success rate is phenomenal when followed through.

Honestly, I’m not really sure why I’m writing this. It’s probably the result of a recent article I read on a successful trend in psychology to address ADHD without medicating our children. That, and spending a few days with my sister’s new family. And perhaps my inherent distrust of quick, easy fixes that greatly profit some industry, particularly where our hearts and minds are concerned.

I know several of you have children now. I can only guess what you go through, every day, both the amazing, and the terrible. So here is two cents, I suppose.

  • “behavioural”? So you’re British now?

    I don’t know if you saw my post about the book “Little Sugar Addicts,” but it seems relevant. It’s hard for me to credit the amount pharmacological influence being exerted upon behavior that either a) has been dealt with for many, many years via other methods, or b) has emerged suddenly in epidemic proportions, the causes of which we aren’t interested in exploring so long as we can medicate.

    Anyway, kudos on the post, and in particular its Whitmanesque sweep!

  • Ha! I don’t know why I spell that way. Behavior was used several times there, often without the ‘u’ — and I know I purposefully take it out sometimes manually… but it always seems to find its way in somehow when I’m flying-typing. Besides, we’re all British-ish when reading/writing English. The French-ish scent is somewhat irritating, though.

    I may have read the “Little Sugar Addicts” a while ago and it bubbled up to resurface in some way in this, too. I’ll search back for it. I would have liked to spend more time researching actual numbers and historical numbers on this subject, but I already don’t write so many things I’d like to simply because of the large investment of time required to cite.

    Anyway, I find us agreeing or disagreeing on brain issues — disconcerting. But I’ll venture to say, I agree. It seems a real shame to me that people choose to influence brains that are still doing so much growing with chemicals.

    Another interesting thing about ADHD seems to be that children often don’t have it at all when they’re doing something that holds their interest. The people diagnosed with ADHD often, also, seem to be the ones who are the “risk-takers” in our world. Nobody likes a risk-taker, eh? So much envy…

  • Ritalin, for instance, is known to stunt physical growth. Who knows what else it’s doing to the little gray cells. Wasn’t it Fourier who developed a whole educational system predicated on what sounds like ADHD? I don’t doubt that given the range of children’s developmental issues that some may require medication for stabilization, but it’s hard to see how “to help him focus and not run around so much” equates with “do no harm.” Especially when children are let run around less and less. What about the war on the anarchy of recess? Now there’s something to get upset about. I just read somewhere that the sign of an addictive personality is the proclivity to look always for a magic pill as a solution. So who has the problem here?