Pauline Harte

Ritalin isn't always the best cure for misbehavior

Pauline Harte · May 6, 1997

As I was flipping through the pages of a local tabloid, my meanderings settled on a question directed to Dr. Levy of the Child and Family Development Center. A parent suspected that her 6-year-old son might have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Actually, as Dr. Levy informed us, ADD is now known as ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Not to make light of a serious problem, if the name of this disorder gets any longer, parents will have to swallow a swig of their kid's Ritalin just to remember the name of little Johnny's attention disorder. And to Dr. Levy's credit, he suggested alternatives to dosing this parent's son with Ritalin, the "miracle" drug that has been given credit for restoring peace and order to the chaotic classrooms of America.

I went to twelve years of Catholic school back in the last Ice Age. We were not allowed to have ADHD. Unauthorized movement was verboten by the Sisters of the Gestapo. Those white-hooded mistresses of law and order kept their rulers hanging next to their rosaries, both dangling from an unseen belt. This bastion of brutality was an ADHD-free zone.

In those days, inattention and fidgeting got the offender 20 or 30 whacks with a ruler, no questions asked, and having "options" meant you had the right to decide which hand you wanted whacked. Bored? Picking up trash in the school yard every recess and lunch period for a couple of weeks cured us of that complaint.

Self-esteem wasn't something the good nuns felt we needed. It was much easier for them to exterminate those pesky, occasional bouts of independent thought that somehow reared their ugly heads if students were kept timid and terrified. We learned how to hide the sparkle in our eyes. Camouflage was our salvation.

Time-out meant that Sister Theresa was catching her breath before the next round of ruler-mania. We didn't know the luxury of simply being sent to the cool confines of a quiet room to harangue our socially offensive ids for conduct unbecoming a uniformed zombie of Catholicism.

And if we didn't appear sufficiently contrite after a bloody bout with Sister Theresa's ruler, we could march our evil selves to the foreboding, musty cell of Mother Mary Margaret. One mind-altering session with that black-robed cryptkeeper was worth about fifty drums of Ritalin. A photograph of the frowning, foam-flecked face of Mother Mary Margaret hung in every classroom to remind us that Sister Theresa's ruler wasn't the worst thing we could be facing. You bet your razor strap we paid attention!

Thank God times have changed since then. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Ritalin is being prescribed for everything from hiccups to assault and battery. Drugs should not become the alternative to good parenting and teaching skills. I know that Ritalin has helped many kids, but drugging every fidgety kid is as unacceptable as beating them with a ruler.

I spent a few hours every week as a classroom volunteer mom, and I know how difficult it is trying to teach 35 kids while coping with the disruptive behavior of a couple of classroom cut-ups. But misdiagnosing ADHD unfairly saddles a child with a label he doesn't deserve and undermines the credibility of those who truly have this disorder.

Love, discipline, and patience. These generic alternatives to Ritalin take longer to administer, but sometimes they are the only honest answer. Panaceas don't always come in a bottle. Sometimes they come from the heart.

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