Whether you call ADD a “disorder or a ‘paddleable offense,’ ” we’re making too many excuses for children’s problems today, Texas Governor Rick Perry wrote in his 2008 book, On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For. His statement is a throwback to a less well-informed, less compassionate era when children who were hyperactive and struggled to focus in school were not said to have disabilities like ADD and ADHD, but were thought to be just plain bad.
Nearly 1 in 10 children today are diagnosed with ADHD according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease and Control. Many children take medication to address symptoms including difficulty concentrating and impulsivity. Many parents are concerned that children with ADHD and ADD are overmedicated. But Perry’s suggestion that children just need more discipline and “tough love” overlooks the fundamental challenges of having ADHD and ADD.
In his book, the presidential candidate self-diagnoses himself with “severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).” His suggestions for addressing the challenges of ADD are, first of all, the rigors of scouting:
“Some young boys—especially those with severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), as I must have had as a boy—have never focused on something for more than a few minutes until they tried to build their first fire on a camp-out or learned to tie a bowline knot with a double half-hitch knot on the opposite end of a thirty-foot rope,” Perry wrote. “Others have never been asked to do a project that takes more than a few hours or a few minutes to complete. If they have, they probably walked away from it without any consequences. Boy Scouts helps cure this form of restlessness. The combination of difficult tasks and harmless competition can ignite in a young boy the characteristic of perseverance that has never been seen in them before.”
A recent study has indeed found that regular “green time” — playing in “green,” outdoor settings — is linked to milder ADHD symptoms; scouting could be seen as having some similarities to “green time”:
The researchers … found that children who were high in hyperactivity (diagnosed with ADHD rather than ADD) tended to have milder symptoms if they regularly played in a green and open environment (such as a soccer field or expansive lawn) rather than in a green space with lots of trees or an indoor or built outdoor setting.
Perry suggests that people today just need to be tougher on kids who receive diagnoses of ADD and ADHD. These are considered neurological disorders today; Perry refers back to a bygone, certainly harsher era in noting that ADD has been called a “‘paddleable offense.’”As Perry wrote:
We have a drug for every problem and a diagnosis for every psychosis. We don’t have children with ‘ants in their pants’; we have children with ‘attention deficit disorder.’ That is not to minimalize such conditions. Lord knows, whether you call it a disorder or a “paddleable offense,” I had it as a kid. The point is, we defend today behavior we wouldn’t tolerate in past years, and we treat with drugs today behavior we would attempt to fix through either discipline or love in the past. Don’t take my statement too far: some drugs are a godsend for conditions we never treated right before they were available. But some kids don’t need coddling or drug therapy; they need attention and tough love.
Perry makes a familiar argument here: Instead of saying children today are “bad,” we say they have some psychological diagnosis or learning disability. Instead of “fixing” those behaviors with “discipline or love” — “tough love,” that is — we medicate children with “drug therapy” and even “coddle” them.
A few years ago, comedian Dennis Leary said something similar, that autism was a “joke” and that the reason so many children are being diagnosed with autism is because their “inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically” — because of bad parenting.
Leary was roundly rebuked by parents, teachers and therapists of autistic children and Perry should be too. Perry’s statements suggest that ADD and ADHD are just today’s way of talking about “kids who are bad”; about children who, in the past, might indeed have had a paddle or other form of corporal punishment used against them. ADD and ADHD are real neurological disorders that can make school and life really, really tough for those who have them — if Perry indeed had ADD as a child, he should know.
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Photo by Gage Skidmore