Letting boys be boys

A recent report indicates that as many as one-in-five high-school-age boys have been diagnosed with ADHD and many of them are being treated with drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. Clearly, either there is a growing epidemic of ADHD of unknown causes, or diagnostic criteria and social standards have changed. In either case, what used to be a case of “boys will be boys” has become a social and medical problem.

Certainly, there are legitimate cases of ADHD, and the use of drugs has been shown to be effective in helping those in whom ADHD has become problematic. However, now that the use of such drugs has reached eight billion dollars per year in America, and 20 percent of young boys are diagnosed, one must consider what other factors are at play.

When I was growing up the boys in my suburban New York school were a mixed lot. Some were shy and studious, quiet in class, not terribly athletic and even socially awkward. Others were “leaders” – good athletes, good students and good-looking boys who garnered lots of positive attention. Then there was the group in the middle, in which I placed myself; average students, average athletes, socially capable but not necessarily the most popular. Finally, there were the outcasts who constantly acted-out inappropriately and seemed unable to control themselves; they’d disrupt classes, make funny sounds, throw balled-up paper, never do homework, cut school and spend an inordinate amount of time in the vice-principal’s office. I’d put their number at one-in-50, and I suppose today they would be diagnosed with ADHD.

In grammar school, there was one boy named Michael who chased our fourth grade teacher around the room and down the hall by wielding a yardstick with a nail pierced at one end. He’d make goofy sounds, whoops and grunts, and get hysterical nearly every day. By fifth grade, he was gone. But every boy, from time to time, was capable of getting wacky, and I loved that wackiness. There is something about sitting in class hour after hour that runs against the grain of boyhood, and I suspect that today’s epidemic of ADHD may have something to do with a lack of regular physical activity that provides the outlet for raging hormones at work in young boys.

At one level, school is about socializing individuals and teaching them to conform to the rules and regulations of group society. In some sense, this runs against the grain of individuation and autonomy, natural forces that arise during the psychological development of boys and girls both, but is necessary for society to function in an orderly manner. Taken to excess, however, it overly suppresses healthy initiative, imagination and experimentation, forcing these qualities to express themselves through the shadow-self of personality in anti-social and even destructive impulses or in some cases, I suspect, ADHD-like behavior.

That the purpose of schooling has been wedded to future livelihood has not helped. To many businesses, good workers are compliant workers, willing to do what they are told without question or complaint, and this seems to have become the definition of a good student. Thus it is no surprise that tolerance for variations in behavior and personality has decreased while diagnoses of ADHD have increased. This is more a symptom of a confused society than anything having to do with boyhood.