Diagnosing Boys Who Behave Badly

Earlier this week I felt anger and sadness over watching a little boy I know fading into the black hole that sensitive and artistic little children can go into.  Today it seems that the obvious must be stated: boys are different than girls. They start different, and they end up different. They act different at school, and they are often punished for that. However, since children can no longer be hit or shamed by teachers, the methods of punishment and control used in the classroom have changed. Today, schools slap the child with a label, not a ruler.

What’s happened over the past 20-30 years is that the schools and counselors have changed the labels they give little boys who don’t fit in, but they haven’t changed their intolerance for little boys, or big boys, for that matter. It’s a well-documented fact that boys develop differently and, in some areas, more slowly, than girls. Girls tend to be better academic performers because they are often good with language and details, and want to please the teacher; boys tend to be better at athletics and manly feats of strength and daring, and want to please or impress other boys. This, of course, causes problems for the classroom teacher who is attempting to teach and control 25-30 students, about half of whom are boys behaving badly (i.e., like boys). There’s good research to support the idea that boys ought to start school later than girls, and that starting them in academics too early can have negative consequences. If boys must start school early, and must jump through the same sorts of hoops as girls, then (we’re told) they’ll do better if they can learn in female-dominated classrooms.

The fashionable label 10-15 years ago for boys was ADD or ADHD. These became such catch-alls that a cautionary backlash occurred, which in turn resulted in a diagnostic balancing act. The referral worked this way:

  1. Boy acts like usual self.
  2. Boy annoys teacher mightily.
  3. Teacher sends notes home.
  4. Boy annoys teacher more and, with other boys, disrupts classroom.
  5. Teacher sends notes home and calls parents.
  6. Boy has Incident and is sent to office, and parents are called.
  7. Teacher, parents, and principal meet.
  8. Behavior checklists and pre-diagnostic checklists are sent home.
  9. Mommy fills out checklists; teacher fills out checklists.
  10. School counselor meets with all, and it is determined that Boy is, in fact, the Spawn of Satan and must be Diagnosed, Medicated, and sent to the Specialist-Who-Tutors-the-Demonically-Possessed.
  11. Child is removed from classroom for several hours per day/per week/forever, and Teacher is now happy.
  12. Child has a special label to wear for the rest of his school years, which comes in handy whenever excuses are needed.

Last week, I read up on autism out of concern for the child I wrote about, and it turns out that young boys are increasingly being diagnosed with it. This is due, in part, to changes in criteria, which has been reported in several places. Increased public awareness about autism and a definition that was broadened to include children with normal IQs probably also contribute to the increase in diagnoses. Having said this, however, I return to my hypothesis that autism is the new ADD/ADHD: it is boys behaving badly, or artistic boys being confused with autistic boys (as seems to be the case with the boy I wrote about earlier this week).

The reasons why a child doesn’t quite fit in are as myriad as the number of children who don’t fit in. I think that we’re too ready to label and diagnose children these days, and that we can make debilitating mistakes by so doing. Every child who is out of step is not diagnosable; some children are just at either end of the bell curve. The child may be a budding artist, musician, or the reincarnation of Carl Jung or another luminary who didn’t “fit in.” We will never know if we medicate the child into oblivion.

Another possibility is that the child who doesn’t fit in is what Elaine N. Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person (she has a new book out about the highly sensitive child). A checklist for assessing whether your child is highly sensitive can be found here.

The criteria include:

  • Is aware of subtleties in the environment.
  • Is affected by the moods of others.
  • Tends to be sensitive to pain.
  • Needs to withdraw from too much stimulation.
  • Is especially sensitive to caffeine.
  • Can be overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, loud noises, etc.
  • Shows evidence of a rich inner life.
  • Is deeply moved by the arts or music.
  • Startles easily.
  • Is easily stressed.
  • Is sensitive to the suffering of others.
  • Is overwhelmed when too many demands is made of him.
  • Is troubled by violent movies or TV.
  • Doesn’t deal well with change, but needs help in new situations.

Children who are not highly sensitive, but who have highly intuitive personality types, may also have similar challenges in the classroom. Gender or personality may account for behaviors that take a child from the curve of the bell to either end of the spectrum, but by no means ought to be grounds for labeling a child who started out within normal limits for a human being.

And this is the part where I slide with faltering steps onto thin ice: the child who began life within normal limits may not remain there if we make Big Mistakes by ignoring our gut and listening to others who aggressively tell us that they know better. I think we’re especially prone to ignoring our gut when our own parents served as role models for it and habituated us to it. If parents devalue their expertise and roles by out-sourcing their parenting roles and their wisdom to nannies, babysitters, day care workers, teachers, etc., then we are at higher risk of devaluing our own parenting wisdom. We don’t really believe we’re as important as all that: but we are. We may ignore what our wise minds and our guts are telling us.

Mothers and fathers, please listen carefully to your innermost selves. Don’t just assume that those butterflies in your stomach, or that sinking feeling down there, are telling you that something is badly wrong with your child. Certainly, it’s possible that something is badly wrong; however, it’s just as possible that nothing is wrong with your child, and that everything is wrong with the situation, the environment, the caregiver, or the teacher. Your highly intuitive boy may need to live in la-la land for another year, regardless of whether la-la land is part of his kindergarten curriculum. He may need only three hours of preschool rather than six every day; he may need no preschool at all for six months.

Your really active little boy may do better in a different school, or home schooled, or with a different teacher, or in soccer. Your highly sensitive girl may need a pet of her own to cuddle (when she is old enough), or may need some “lap time” more often and with more regularity. Your child may be a “them,” and not fit neatly into whatever gender role was assigned at birth, and may be struggling at school because they’re trying to figure out how to sort themselves. You may need to volunteer in the classroom, so you can see what’s really going on with your child.

One of my Boys Behaving Badly made his 5th grade substitute teacher cry every day for a week. This week occurred after many years of school, during which I went every single week to the office and conferred with the teacher and principal about this boy’s behavior. They nearly begged me to medicate this child, but I knew he was not diagnosable with anything other than Boyishness at the Far End of the Bell Curve.

In spite of my knowledge, I felt compassion for the poor teachers and the other students who were more “normal” and deserved more education than entertainment. I told my son that if he made the teacher cry one more time, I would withdraw him from school, he could kiss public school good-bye, and I would home school him until he became tame. He did, I did; he did, and I did. After five years of home schooling, that same Bad Boy was back in school, a star basketball player, and a stellar human being—and he remains a stellar human being to this very day.

Would Bad Boy’s ultimate outcome have been different had he been labeled and medicated, and retained by the public schools? Maybe, maybe not. There’s enough love and light in this family that handicaps of mis-labeling would probably be overcome later, but not without cost. I know, because I’ve made what I now consider to be parenting mistakes that have taken years to undo. I’m not talking down to other parents from an ivory tower, here.

I also don’t think that home schooling is the answer for everyone; but I do think that parents ought to approach labeling a child for life with the greatest caution. Being labeled can be a crippler that later takes much work to overcome, and it seems more effective to avoid labeling altogether or postpone it when possible. I’ve been privileged to help some adults re-frame their differentness with labels that are more useful than “learning disabled” and “reading disabled,” and “low-average IQ” and “ADHD” and a variety of other labels that usually only helped teachers and adults to cope with a child’s differences.

Mothers, when your instincts tell you that something is wrong, something probably is wrong: but the problem may not be with your child. Something else may need to change to help your child adapt to life in his (or her, or their) own time.  I hope young mothers will take courage by noticing that they usually know when something is amiss, and will follow through to an outcome that is as good as possible for that particular child, at that particular time, in that particular setting, and with those particular parents.

| Understanding Your Child’s Temperament | Mentor Mom |

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