Sarita Sarvate

Oakland Tribune

July 23, 1995

Why Do We Force Our Children Into a Rigid Set of Expectations?

BY SARITA SARVATE

I can still close my eyes and smell the air on that bright June morning as I came out of the pediatrician’s office in tears, reeling from the news that my son was hyperactive and would need medication when he entered school. I remembered my own childhood in India, where I had been coddled and loved, not studied like a guinea pig on a scale where my performance on every criterion was measured against a so-called norm.

Do we discipline our children too much and too early in America because we are afraid of our ultimate loss of control I wondered. Does our very lack of faith in our children give us this desperate need to manipulate them when we can, before they turn into teen-agers?

I was grappling with these questions when I came upon Pearl S. Bucks “My Several Worlds.” The Chinese spoiled their children, she said, because they believed that it was important to allow a child to vent his tempers. Because they had not been disciplined too soon, she said, when they reached the age of 7 or 8, such children learned very rapidly.

I ignored the doctor’s pronouncement and began to channel my son’s curiosity and energy into creative directions, with the result he just finished first grade without any difficulty and is a fluent reader.

MANY experts believe today that we should not attempt to teach children to read and write as early as 3 years of age. Countries like New Zealand, which account or a child’s physiological inability to read and write before a certain age, produce better results, they say.

Why do we force our children to sit through “circle time” from the ripe old age of 2, when movement and rhythm and imagination should rule? Why can’t we, one of the richest countries in the world, reduce the kindergarten class size in half and design a curriculum to meet every child’s need instead of trying to design the child to fit the curriculum? Mean-spirited politics of a society that chooses to put dollars into jails rather than schools are misshaping the future of our children.

Is it any surprise that in an era of shrinking budgets and rising class sizes, higher percentages of children are being diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder?

One psychologist told me, “It is the diagnosis of the 90s. In the 70s, everyone was gifted. Now everyone has ADD. Statistically, it is a bell-shaped curve, and there can’t be that many outliers.”

This recent ADD rage has brought a slew of amateur “experts” ready to diagnose your child for free. Foremost among these are pre-school teachers. Low pay and stressful work situations make them susceptible to regarding a boisterous boy as a problem. Tragically, many teachers ignore the unique artistic and creative talents of such children, judging them only by their ability to sit still, not by their ability to learn.

ADD is not a medical diagnosis, but a behavioral one covering a wide range of traits. Active, mischievous children who don’t sit still are susceptible to this diagnosis. While in extreme cases medication might be necessary, parents should be vigilant against branding their child too early.

IN a recent article in Atlantic Monthly, Winifred Gallagher noted that although many personality traits such as aggressiveness are inherited, research shows that nurture plays a great role in channeling such traits into positive, creative directions, or negative, destructive, criminal directions. Just as brain chemistry influences our responses to our environment, so does our environment influence our brain chemistry. Repeated stress in animals has been shown to alter the operation of brain neurotransmitters.

Brain chemistry in ADD children is poorly understood; no specific gene or chemical is associated with the condition. Peculiarly, mostly boys seem to be afflicted with it, and more so boys from minority or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A nation that does not support child care or reduce the demands on parents of long workdays and unwieldy commutes pays dearly with children stuck for long hours in overcrowded facilities where they cannot mature at their own pace until they are ready for positive school experiences.

ADD is a society’s disease, and only a society can cure it, through high quality, government subsidized day care and schooling aimed at bringing out the best in every child, not through a system designed to find faults with every child who does not fit into a rigid set of expectations.

San Leandro resident Sarita Sarvate works for the California Public Utilities Commission as a natural gas industry expert.

Copyright, Oakland Tribune, 1995