Chemical Straightjacketing:
How kids are drugged into submission

By J.C. Arnold

Ask anyone to name the chief dangers facing children today, and they're likely to tick off a predictable list - homelessness and malnutrition, poor education and inadequate healthcare. They're not wrong. But the longer I work with children, the more concerned I am about another quiet wave that carries just as a great a menace: the mindset of avoidance. Call it what you want - convenience, denial, or stubbornness - but if there's anything that characterizes education across the board, it's the persistent habit of turning our backs on the hardest questions, and falling for the answers that soothe us back to sleep.

Though the tendency to settle for the most painless solution to a problem is a normal human trait, it is rarely a healthy approach to child rearing. From parenting journals to popular books, the wisdom is the same: children may be cute, but raising them is a thankless chore. Childhood itself has come to be viewed as a suspect phase. Children of all ages and means are being squelched on the playground and in class, not because they're unmanageable or unruly, but simply because they're behaving like children should.

Diagnosed with "problems" that used to be recognized as normal childhood traits - impulsiveness and exuberance, spontaneity and daring - millions of children are being diagnosed as hyperactive and drugged into submission. I'm referring, of course, to the widespread use of Ritalin and other related stimulants, and to the public's fascination with medicine as the answer to any and every problem.

Ritalin is surely a legitimate drug for certain specific conditions. But given the threefold increase in its use in the last decade, one has to wonder if it isn't being misused as an easy cure-all for problems such as ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) and to rein in lively children who may not even have the disorder. After all, much of what is designated as ADHD is nothing more than a defense against over-structuring - a natural reflex that used to be called letting off steam - or alternately, a symptom of various unmet emotional needs. Jeff, an old friend, gives a poignant example:

"Jerome, an eight-year-old from Seattle, came and stayed with us last summer for a break from the city. When he arrived he was a mess, though he was on Ritalin. After two or three days, however, we weaned him off his dose, because with all the room to play he was no longer bouncing off the walls, but beginning to take himself in hand. (At home in his apartment building there was nothing for him to do but watch TV.) I could definitely see the change.

When this little guy first arrived he could barely keep his attention on anything for more than a minute, he was so keyed up and distracted. I laid down some ground rules and gave him some time. I took him out with a bike, since he was unsure of how to ride. By the end of his stay he was so settled and happy that at one point he even asked me if he could call me Dad. I just about lost it. This child didn't need Ritalin: all he needed was fresh air - and love."

Put Jerome back in the projects, and he will probably revert. He'll be put back on Ritalin, and his "symptoms" will be re-suppressed. Whether he'll ever get the attention he really needs, either at home or at school, is quite another question.

Fortunately it's one that increasing numbers of people are asking, like Peter Breggin, a pediatrician and author: "People call drugs like Ritalin a godsend for emotional and behavioral problems. But I think the way they're overused is absolutely horrifying. When I was asked by the National Institutes of Health to be a scientific discussant on the effects of these drugs at a conference they held, I reviewed the important literature, and I found that when animals are given them, they stop playing; they stop being curious; they stop socializing; they stop trying to escape. Ritalin makes good caged animals; we're making good caged kids. It's all very well to talk about it taking a whole village to raise a child, but in practice, we're acting as if we think it only takes a pill."

Given the dismal state of the culture described above, parenting in the 21st century is clearly going to involve a lot of hard work. But why should that frighten us? As long as we run from the responsibilities that will always be there, we will not only squander the most formative moments of bringing up children, but also rob ourselves as well of its most meaningful joys.


From "ENDANGERED: Your Child in a Hostile World" by J. C. Arnold.

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