Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

The nature of parenting, the nurturing of children

Posted by metaphorical on 23 December 2006

The nature/nurture controversy is always going to be with us, and it’s never going to get simpler. It would be nothing more than interesting philosophic challenge or academic exercise, except that it has all kinds of implications for right action and moral judgment. Nowhere is this more apparent than the context of behavior-altering drug therapies.

The NY Times reported yesterday that for children with ADHD and similar behavior disorders, a strict behavioristic form of parenting can augment drug therapies and do more for children than just drugs alone; can help kids lower their needed drug intake; and in some cases can even eliminate the need for drugs.

In a comprehensive review, the American Psychological Association urged in August that for childhood mental disorders, “in most cases,” nondrug treatment “be considered first,” including techniques that focus on parents’ skills, as well as enlisting teachers’ help. [….]

“We are at a point where families who bring in a child ought to get a Chinese menu of treatments that are backed by some evidence, including not only medication but psychosocial or family interventions,” said Dr. John March, a child psychiatrist at Duke University. “Not to do so when we know some of these therapies work is, in my opinion, simply unethical. Then let the family choose which one they want.”

If the doctors have an obligation to present nondrug therapies, and if, in fact, they ought to be considered first, then don’t parents have an obligation to learn the necessary skills and use them?

“People are so stressed out, and it’s so much easier to say, ‘Here, take this pill and go to your room; leave me alone,’ ” Lisa Popczynski said on a recent Monday after work. Peter sat on the couch, hunched over his homework, while her husband, Roman, occupied Scott, 8.

“But what I would say is that if you are willing to take on the responsibility of extra parenting, you can make a big difference,” said Ms. Popczynski, an interior designer. “I compare parenting to driving. We all learn pretty quickly how to drive a car. But if you have to drive a Mack truck, you’re going to need some training.”

It’s not exactly surprising that the apparent rise in behavioral disorders among children not only coincides with, but might be caused by, the apparent rise in what might be called the minimalist style of parenting: heavy on the videogames, light on reading; homework, leisure time spent together, and the do’s and don’ts of civil behavior. What’s society’s obligation to kids in the face of bad parenting?

2 Responses to “The nature of parenting, the nurturing of children”

  1. JoAnne said

    It’s only recently that ADHD and other disorders have been medicalized. I think until this happened, the very existence of these problems was denied or explained away as often as possible. So it may not be that there is more of the problem; we may just be *seeing* more of it.

    If we say people can do something behaviorally with these children, this may end up “de-medicalizing” the problem and pushing it underground again. Those who are most likely to have difficulty implementing the behavioral methods will be those who don’t have a parent able to stay home full-time; those whose parenting skills mirror poor parenting done to them; those who don’t have the education to understand some of the principles involved.

    These people have already been victimized by the system. We don’t want to target them, yet we also don’t want their children to suffer more than they have to.

    If such methods can be taught as specialized skills, and taught in a way that is both effective and reinforcible, it sounds promising. One problem with this kind of education is it often comes too little, too late, garbled, and without enough reinforcement. How many such classes will a person go to? How well will the lessons be learned?

    Most people aren’t great students, and we have enough trouble with regular education. Maybe a form similar to any of the Twelve Step programs would be effective for those who aren’t the “classroom type.”

    Nature versus nurture always made as much sense to me as chocolate or vanilla. It’s Neapolitan, baby.

  2. For philosophers, Nature Versus Nurture is shorthand for “determinism is true or false,” so there’s no Neapolitan option. If determinism is false, then people can alter their behavior for the better. If not, that is, if determinism is true, it’s hard to see how to hold people accountable for their actions. So that’s the moral dimension.

    I know it’s hard to know if ADHD and the like are becoming more common, or whether it’s just being diagnosed more and more. I suspect at least partly, it is more common, because we’re forcing kids to behave like adults at younger ages. They’re learning to read in preschool, they’re being left at home with minimal attention paid to them, or they’re in a second-rate day care facility with a much higher adult-child ratio than kids used to be raised with.

    “I probably had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) back when it was called Pain in the Ass Kid Syndrome.” (Scott Ghiz, rec.climbing)

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