The Miseducation of Children

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a thousand words must be worth ten thousand words. This is the case with Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Country Doctor.” In just a few paragraphs, Kafka is able to paint a picture of a society losing its internal moorings and turning from the spiritual to the scientific.

In this story, the village physician is called out of bed in the middle of a raging snow storm to attend a young patient. When he arrives at the boy’s house, the family is crowded around his sickbed. The youth cries to the physician, “Save me, save me.” The doctor examines him, but can find nothing wrong, even though the family insists the youth is sick.

The youth again cries, “Will you save me?” The doctor examines him again and sees a gaping sore in the patient’s side, with multiple rose-red layers. “Worms, as thick and long as my little finger, themselves rose coloured and also spattered with blood, are wriggling their white bodies with many limbs from their stronghold in the inner of the wound towards the light.” The family seems pleased to discover that the boy is even more ill than they had imagined. After further examination, the doctor explains that he cannot save the youth. The villagers are incensed and engage in a ritual divesting the doctor of his powers. They chant, circle him, strip off his vestments and throw him out into the wild. Struggling to find his way back through the darkness, the physician thinks:

That’s how people are in my region. Always demanding the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and tears his religious robes to pieces, one after the other. But the doctor is supposed to achieve everything with his delicate surgeon’s hand. Well, it’s what they like to think. I have not offered myself. If they use me for sacred purposes, I let that happen to me as well.

That is what people are like in my district. Always expecting the impossible from the doctor. They have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand. Well, as it pleases them.

Kafka’s story is more than a fiction. It is a creative snapshot of Kafka’s ongoing attempts to make conscious his personal suffering, and it is an historical account of the evolution of a culture’s consciousness. The modern culture of the 1920s was in the midst of a world war; it was the age of Freud and Jung, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky; Mussolini and Hitler; Woodrow Wilson and the failed League of Nations; Ho Chi Minh, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks; Albert Einstein; Kaiser Wilhelm; Hemingway and Fitzgerald; Harry Truman and Winston Churchill; and numerous pioneering aviators, inventors, and scientists. These men heralded the coming of a new age: the age of science, which has now become our kingdom and age.

The Miseducation & Misdiagnosis of Children

It’s not unusual these days to diagnose young children, particularly boys, with psychiatric disorders when the very behaviors that merit a diagnosis today were considered typical boyish behavior in earlier times. Ignoring much of what research has proved time and again about early childhood development, we are adults who want to have our own way, dammit, and we’ll get it even at the expense of our own children. Only later will we discover that we also sacrificed our own souls.

Psychologist, educator, and author David Elkind is one of many who has written prolifically about the destructive trend toward education of younger and younger children, and warned us that dire consequences would proceed from such cavalier and self-interested placements of preschool-aged children into early education. His warnings have fallen on deaf ears, as kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds is now common, and nearly as soon as a little child can talk, his parents are taking him to preschool two or more days per week so that mommy and daddy can follow their dreams. A large scale increase in suffering among young children has occurred, occasioning labeling, diagnosing, and medicating that can never heal the wound that parents have inflicted and demanded, and that society has enabled.

The literal meaning of the word psychopathology* is “the expression of the suffering of a soul,” but because we no longer believe in or honor the soul, or engage in meaningful spirituality, or are willing to endure the suffering required of truly loving parents, we have become instead like ancient pagans, putting their sons and daughters into the fires of Ba’al Molech as human sacrifices. And then we dance.

The Abuse of Freedom

I am sick in my soul about the way we as a culture have used the wonderful freedoms and blessings of our nation. We are like the Galatians to whom Saint Paul wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13-15 NAS). We have used our great freedoms as coverings for evil, for self-serving and for the abandonment of our children.

Some detractors of parental sacrifice suggest that it’s better for an ill-equipped mother to leave her wayward boy in the place where he perishes daily than to equip herself to suffer in his place. For such parents, loving one’s neighbor-even if that neighbor is one’s own child-is not part of the modern code of ethics. If given a choice between her child or herself, she must choose herself and medicate her child into oblivion. No doubt this is the selfsame wound that was handed her by her parents; but that doesn’t make it right. Even if this is the case, and parents are acting out of the wounds inflicted by their parents (and I’d hazard a guess that most are), part of our healing comes through our willingness to see what we are doing and to do something that relieves suffering rather than increases it. This, in my way of thinking, is the only ethical action a devoted parent can make.

I’ve been surprised to hear Oprah Winfrey say several times that she chose to remain unmarried and childless because she knew she could only do one thing excellently and perfectly at a time. She would never have been able to be an excellent wife and an excellent talk show host at the same time; an excellent wife and mother, and an excellent talk show host at the same time. So she chose to be the best Oprah she could be as a talk show host. The rest is history.

I’m surprised that America’s wealthiest woman can say something so forthright and get a pass on it from the popular culture, particularly from other women who are trying to do it all. Does her example suggest anything to other women? Do they really think that they can have it all, all at the same time? Do they truly believe that parenting requires only comfortable sacrifice (an oxymoron if ever there was one)? Why are we so unwilling as a people to make sacrifices, to suffer? Why are we so willing to make our children be the problem rather than looking at ourselves or our culture, or both?

We have progressed from putting our faith in the priest to putting it in the physician, psychiatrist, and educator. As such professionals have increasingly let us down and proven themselves to have feet of clay, people have turned to alternative medicines, to the east, and to energy medicine. Now that energy medicine is being legitimized through certification and is on the verge of being accepted by the American Psychological Association as a legitimate means of treating psychopathology, people are increasingly turning to fringe healers and experiences such as shamanism. People who seek the mysterious Other will always have to go beyond science to find it, for “God is Spirit.”

Our faith in the educator remains, however, even though there is considerable evidence that early instruction or too much of the wrong type of instruction can do lasting harm, and that young children subjected too early to the pressures of school and the adult world are at psychological and physical risk. Witness the schedules of the typical American child under age five years: most live with miniature renditions of the schedules of their parents. Because parents work, the child is in effect a working child also. The parents who rise at 6:00 a.m. must also awaken the child; parents who must be to work on time need to have their children in child care or preschool at the same time. Mom and Dad put in their 40-hour week, and Junior puts in his 40-hour week, plus the commute. Add to this the stressors of a regimented “educational” program that was not designed to meet a young child’s developmental needs. It is no wonder that America is experiencing a substantial increase in the incidence of affective disorders among children and adults. The human psyche was never designed to live such stressful lives, yet we do it and we call it “normal.” We turn blind eyes on the consequences.

Early childhood education works well for inner-city poor children: this much we know. But the model for instructing poor children whose home lives are lacking should not be the model for the children of middle- and upper-class parents. What sort of leadership and help can we expect in the next generation from children who are already being subjected to psychotropic medications in preschool and elementary school?

The Results of Miseducation

In 1987, David Elkind predicted that the miseducation of children would result in a generation of teenagers and young adults who “will be more neurotic than teenagers today. They will show more obsessions, more compulsions, more phobias, more psychosomatic symptoms than do teenagers today” (Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk 202). Twenty years have passed since Elkind wrote his groundbreaking book, and what we have seen is sobering. Not only was Elkind correct, but by now we have seen that he did not predict how dire the consequences would be of early childhood education.

The Archives of General Psychiatry published a study on the incidence of childhood and adolescent psychiatric disorders which found that by the age of 16 years, 36.7% of new psychiatric cases in previously unaffected children met DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for at least one major psychiatric disorder, and approximately one in five children was diagnosable at any given time. The estimate for boys greatly exceeded that for girls, as a result of a much higher cumulative prevalence of Conduct Disorder (CD) and ADHD. Girls accumulated more cases of depression and anxiety disorders. This research was reviewed several times and a consensus reached that at any given time, one in five American children will have a diagnosable DSM-IV psychiatric disorder. Because stress is a major contributor to psychiatric illness, the authors predicted that our ability to measure increased stress as measured by saliva and blood tests for markers of stessor exposure, such as cortisol reactivity, would contribute substantially to the prevention of childhood and adolescent mental illness. As well, our ability to measure the increase of antibody production in response to stress should also contribute to our understanding of just how much stress alone contributes to mental illness in children.

A similar conclusion was also reached in an earlier related study published in 1996. The authors concluded that, “data on a representative population of children and adolescents growing up in the 1990s show that at any given time, one in six will have a psychiatric disorder and at least one in three will have one or more psychiatric disorders by age 16 years.” As children grow older, their psychiatric disorders are more and more likely to be accompanied by significant functional impairment.

I wonder who will suggest what needs to be done to decrease the stress in the lives of young children? If we discover that watching violent television and movies, playing violent video games, or listening to violent music increase stress and thus contribute to mental illness in some children, will we finally see the technology developed to give our children G-rated versions of PG-13 movies? If we find that having one at-home parent and postponing school entry to age five or seven will reduce stress and thus mental illness, will we as a society initiate measures similar to those in other post-modern countries that allow women or men to stay home with young children, without penalty to their careers or livelihoods later? I wonder.

Conduct Disorder, Depression, and Autism

A different study from Duke University, specifically targeting Conduct Disorder (CD), depression, and autism rates in American children, examined the historical diagnostic rates for these disorders. They found that by 1999, twice as many children (mostly boys) born in 1984 fell into the severe conduct disorder category as did the cohorts of children born in 1958, 1970, and 1983. Likewise, a 30% increase in rates of depression during childhood and adolescence was found when comparing cohorts born between 1965-1974 and those born between 1989-1993. There were also increases in the rates of autism and autism spectrum disorders.

Other unhappy increases are the increase in adolescent suicide risk, increase in adolescent suicide, and higher rates of mental illness diagnoses among children visiting the emergency room for non-acute care.

I think that Elkind and others like him have proved their point, but perceive that proportionately few people are listening. Among those who are paying attention are the increasing number of home schoolers in the United States and those parents who are using alternative education and lifestyles or private schools to educate and raise their children.

References

Elkind, David. Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
—. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1981.
—. All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

_____________________

*psychopathology: from the Greek roots psyche, breath, spirit, soul, mind + patho, suffering, feeling, dis-ease + -logia, the word, speech, expression.

Photographs by Paul Strand.

13 responses

  1. I respect homeschooler’s choices to put all that time and energy into their children’s education. It is a noble effort. I have patients who do that as well and I know how hard and rewarding it can be. I just don’t think anyone should impose their choices on anyone else. Period. I’ve already said on previous posts I think children are overdiagnosed. I am just responding to one aspect of Eve’s post that was missing from all the previous comments. I think we all need to be careful about overgeneralizing.

  2. First, Eve, I corrected the typo in your comment on my blog, because I knew you were probably embarrassed by it. I deleted the post explaining the mistake, as it is no longer necessary. I hope you don’t mind.

    Second, TIV, I think I understand some of your objections to Eve’s post, but I think you are being a bit harsh yourself. Even was pointing out some things that may be true about some people in our society. If the shoe fits. . .

    Do you think that any of her points have some validity? For example, do you think that homeschooling could be a good option for kids who don’t quite fit the mold of public school expectations? Do you think that at least a few parents out there put their personal goals or their convenience ahead of their kids? Do you think that it’s possible that kids who are simply a bit outside the norms are diagnosed with mental or emotional disorders?

    From personal experience I KNOW that he answer to all of these questions is a big, fat yes. These things don’t have to be *universally* true to still be true.

  3. I didn’t exclude Germany as a role model. I just said they’d be last. They make nice wooden non-lead children’s toys. But a lot of their strengths are also their greatest weaknesses and this is based on visits there and knowing people from there. My best friend since childhood is a German Jew and wrote a book about her father’s experiences. But that’s moot, how we children of the holocaust feel towards Germany. That’s not the point here. The point is that I have also put my time in with those horribly abusive families and they are a minority, a fringe group. They are not the norm. And so you can’t generalize from them to loving families. Who you work with and when can definitely distort your perception to be overly judgmental of all parents.

  4. Tiv, I like the Paul Strand iPod photo. It is PhotoShopped, but I thought it was amusing. The real photo was used on the cover of one of Strand’s books (naturally, without the earbuds). But thanks for pointing it out, because perhaps I ought to have myself. I’m kind of… weird that way I suppose.

    I’m going to disagree with you about the homeschooling movement “in general.” I don’t think it is “holier than thou.” I admire in particular those home schooling pioneers who actually were more interested in education and child development than in “holiness” (i.e., they were not religious). I don’t disagree with you about some of the sub-classes of homeschoolers who are fundamentalist in one way or another (we have a fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in our area home schooling group). But I haven’t found that your generalization is accurate for the majority.

    As for the love and goodness in the hearts of parents, that’s a hopeful comment. My decades of clinical work with families has included parents who burn their kids with cigarettes, rape their kids, and do other heinous acts, so I’m going to disagree with you on that one. I don’t believe all parents have love and goodness in their hearts. I believe in evil, and I believe that any human being can become evil after much practice.

    Elkind is not only against over-scheduling, he is against early schooling and recommends starting children around age six or seven years in school. This is apparently what the Germans do, and if they respect child development now, then I still say, good for them.

    Finally, even Germans can be good role models in my opinion. I wouldn’t accept your comment about any other single group or nation of people, so I’m not going to agree with it here. Germany as a nation has as many merits as the next nation, historically speaking. Sadly and horrifyingly for them, they happen to have the biggest historical demerit, too. That doesn’t cancel out their historical or contemporary strengths, in my opinion.

  5. My first lengthy comment got erased. This argument is so convoluted it’s hard to object to the whole thing, so I’d have to dissect it into parts which I don’t want to do again. I object to the holier than thou attitudes of the homeschooling movement in general. I respect parents who can only afford public schools and do their best to improve. I think there is more recognition of child mental illness rather than more prevalence. I think it’s a good thing. We are listening to children more than ever. And Elkind objects to overscheduling kids, which homeschoolers are just as guilty of. I chose private schools for my children because I could, but do not judge anyone else’s choices. I believe most parents have love and goodness in their hearts towards their children. This is from over two decades of clinical work with families. And I wrote a college paper on Paul Strand and believe the photo with the Ipod was photoshopped. There were no i-pods back then. That’s the short of it.

  6. Charolotte, this is interesting information you posted about German schools. I was born in Germany, actually (army brat), and have visited a couple of times over the years. Somehow the fact that German children attend school only four hours a day has escaped me, though.

    What interests me about it is that, by the time they have 12 years of schooling, they have knowledge that is, in my opinion, equivalent to an American with an associate’s degree (or nearly so). My German cousins speak three or four languages by the time they are 12 years old, and they use their languages well.

    I found German society interesting. I found older Germans always willing to tell me when my young son needed a nap (!), and it was also funny that the stores closed so early and everything ran like clockwork. Although I’m half German, I can’t say that I’d enjoy living in Germany for a lifetime; but there’s definitely a lot we could learn from the Germans.

    I continue to read your blog to read about how you’re faring there.

  7. Another great post of course. I’m still digesting what I’ve read and have nothing intelligent to add for the moment other than so say I love your choice of photographer and images. Beautiful.

  8. I’d just like to say that I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve written. Children need to stay children for longer.
    Unfortunately our consumer society demands that, instead of working less and spending more time with them to raise them properly, we work more, and buy them drugs to treat their “disorders”…

  9. Thank you for another superb post. I am truly grateful that I live in Germany where my children only start formal schooling between the ages of six and seven, and until then, are allowed to play. The German school day is also very short, which is highly inconvenient for most parents, but which is wonderful for children. They are home in time for lunch, and have the whole afternoon for play. Society here is changing, they are looking at starting “Ganztagschulen” (all-day schools) but while they discuss that in Parliament, children are enjoying a short four-hour school day.

    I agree with what you say about parents not being willing to suffer or sacrifice to make things better for their children. As a generation, we are unbearably selfish.

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