French children and ADHD

Hat tip to Mr. Albert Mohler and his podcast for pointing me to this article.

The magazine Psychology Today was the scene of a bit of a tiff concerning one professional’s opinion about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The context, as I understand it, was the recent publication of the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — or the DSM — which is, essentially the “Bible” of mental disorder diagnosis. Mr. Mohler had much to say about it and, indeed, apparently it is a terribly flawed book. The principle that comes to mind is one I warn my kids about from time to time: If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the mental health professions, this philosophy does seem to reign to a certain extent.

But, in particular, it was Mr. Mohler’s pointing to an argument about ADHD that caught my attention and eventually led me to a statement that you rarely see in mainstream publications anymore, let alone a work like Psychology Today.

The title of the Psychology Today article was, “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD” by Dr. Marilyn Wedge (you can read it by clicking on the title).

It clearly began with punch:

“In the United States, at least 9% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5%. How come the epidemic of ADHD—which has become firmly established in the United States—has almost completely passed over children in France?

“Is ADHD a biological-neurological disorder? Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends on whether you live in France or in the United States.”

The point, of course, is that biologically, there is not so much different between an American child and a French child that 9% of American children should have a “biological” disorder that only 0.5% of French children do.

The debate then ensues: Is it that French children are actually different? Is it just that French doctors are ill informed? American doctors would be quick to say their French counterparts are too slow to recognize what is a true “disorder” (and responses in Psychology Today have, indeed, said as much), while French doctors would say that American doctors are far too quick to do so.

But what struck me was the common sense in Dr. Wedge’s article — that how a child is reared absolutely does have an impact on such things. Perhaps not 100%, but certainly not 0% and, in truth, far, far greater. In particular, the final section grabbed me with it’s information and advice that is sadly all too rare these days:

“From the time their children are born, French parents provide them with a firm cadre—the word means ‘frame’ or ‘structure.’ Children are not allowed, for example, to snack whenever they want. Mealtimes are at four specific times of the day. French children learn to wait patiently for meals, rather than eating snack foods whenever they feel like it. French babies, too, are expected to conform to limits set by parents and not by their crying selves. French parents let their babies ‘cry it out’ if they are not sleeping through the night at the age of four months.

“French parents, Druckerman observes, love their children just as much as American parents. They give them piano lessons, take them to sports practice, and encourage them to make the most of their talents. But French parents have a different philosophy of discipline. Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure. Clear limits, they believe, actually make a child feel happier and safer—something that is congruent with my own experience as both a therapist and a parent. Finally, French parents believe that hearing the word ‘no’ rescues children from the ‘tyranny of their own desires.’ And spanking, when used judiciously, is not considered child abuse in France.

“As a therapist who works with children, it makes perfect sense to me that French children don’t need medications to control their behavior because they learn self-control early in their lives. The children grow up in families in which the rules are well-understood, and a clear family hierarchy is firmly in place. In French families, as Druckerman describes them, parents are firmly in charge of their kids—instead of the American family style, in which the situation is all too often vice versa.”

By the way, the “Druckerman” to whom she is referring is Pamela Druckerman who has appeared in these posts before. (“French Moms and Social Psychologist Silliness“, 2/7/2012.)

I was both shocked and delighted that a mainstream magazine like Psychology Today would allow someone to mention spanking in anything other than a negative light. But to focus on just that would miss the point. The idea of parents running a house, creating the “framing” and “structures” and not allowing the children to be the center and “pace setters” of that home was refreshing to see.

I’d write more, but I lack the time. (Actually, I lacked the time to write even this, but–hey–too late!) Just thought it was worth putting out there. And, for kicks, I will add a vive la france!

French Moms and Social Psychologist Silliness

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Should parents shout, "Vive la France"? (Image via Wikipedia)

This weekend, I read the Wall Street Journal’s wonderful article “Why French Moms are Superior” by Pamela Druckerman, who has written a book with the same theme (Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting) that is being published today. It seems to be similar in spirit to the recent “Tiger Mom” fad, inspired by Amy Chua’s book about the benefits her daughters had gained from her Chinese (versus nominally Western) approach to parenting.

Those who think such books are simply a matter of the horrific “Let’s adopt the practices of other cultures because everything truly American stinks” should think again, because they are not necessarily so. Judging by her WSJ article, Mrs. Druckerman’s discoveries in France match the parenting techniques and approaches that I have seen in many happy households here in the U.S. — frankly, many biblical approaches to parenting, that, indeed, are shamefully lacking on this side of the Atlantic. For instance, there is a focus on real parental authority in the home, “discipline” as training and not just as punishment, being loving but firm and expecting obedience, not seeing good parents as those who are “at the constant service of their children” (which, in reality, does a disservice to those children).

Reactions to the article and the book have varied, some good and some stupid.  Closer to the latter end of that spectrum were some of the reactions I saw in a Yahoo! “Shine” item on the book, “Are French Women the New Tiger Mothers?” provided by a “social psychologist” who “specializes in parenting.”

For instance, here’s the beginning of one such instance:

“While you can’t blame parents for everything, some popular parenting practices aren’t worth adapting. A 2003 poll found that 84 percent of French parents admit to slapping or spanking their child.”

You have to love that choice of word, “admit.” Interesting how the choice of a single word can make spanking seem like something one should be ashamed of, isn’t it? After all, who would say, “Yes, I admit that I kiss my wife on the cheek every morning”?

Expect the standard (false) equivocation: spanking = abuse. And to deliver on our expectation, the article provides the social psychologist “expert”:

“Anytime you hit or spank a child, you are teaching them that that’s acceptable behavior,” Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist who specializes in parenting, tells Shine. “There’s study after study that says abused children have the potential to become abusers themselves. From my thinking there’s no excuse for a parent hitting their child.”

Did you catch the switch? The move from “spank” to “abuse”? I’m glad that she qualified that last sentence with a “From my thinking” — that’s more qualification than most give.

(I’ve posted on spanking before — here and here. The “spanking = abuse” scam is one of the most damaging aspects of our society’s approaches to child rearing.)

But the “good advice well” in the article had not yet run dry…

But there are some things we can teach the world, too. “American parents are known for putting their children first,” says Newman. “As a result, children overall feel and know they’re special.”

This is a bit ambiguous, so I’d love to give our “expert” the benefit of a doubt as to what she really means. But does this mean putting the children’s “needs” at the very top of the family’s needs? If so, then it’s contributing to part of our society’s problems not the solutions.  If spanking them supposedly turns them into abusive monsters (it doesn’t), then why doesn’t making sure the children’s desires come first in everything turn them into narcissistic little entitlement monsters (it does)? We suffer from a terrible “I’m special and the world owes me” entitlement mentality in younger people today, thanks to the insidious influence of Darth Rogers. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. Mister Rogers was a sweet fellow. But read the article at the link for what I’m talking about.) And families have been ruined by the choices some parents make in putting their children’s wants ahead of even the health of their marriage, ironically and tragically sacrificing the most important foundation children need in the name of those same children.

If anyone reads the article or book for himself or herself, feel free to leave your comments below. But, as the above comments demonstrate, don’t expect it to be reviewed sensibly by a society that may see some of its most cherished “sacred cows” offered up as barbecue.