Thursday, March 8, 2012

How America Brings Up Children

The kids are not alright.

Everyone knows it. Last year everyone was outraged by the Tiger Mom. She brought up her children according to traditional Confucian methods, and avoided the best advice of the best American parenting experts.

The Tiger Cubs were not fed any self-esteemism. They learned hard work and discipline, perseverance and determination, plus a lot of classical music.

American mothers were horrified. They denounced the Tiger Mom as abusive and dictatorial. American mothers have cornered the market in self-righteous complaining.

This year, it’s French mothers. We are learning that they too do a better job than American mothers. They are more relaxed, less anxious, more laid back… and so on.

French mothers are less threatening than Tiger Moms. But then again, it’s the children of the Tiger Moms who are about to inherit the earth.

A month or so ago David Goldman, aka Spengler, wrote an extraordinary column about how America is failing its children.

America is a country that likes to solve problems. If children are a problem America has a solution. Or, I should say, American science has the solution.

If children are in trouble, cognitive neuroscience and child psychiatry are at the ready to solve the problem by changing their brain chemistry.

I have often praised the interesting work being done by cognitive neuroscience and its adjunct field, behavioral economics. I have also warned, to the extent that I can, against an overly mechanized view of human behavior.

Many neuroscientists replaced the mind with the brain, free will with determinism, and reason with irrational emotion.

Cognitive neuroscientists are so caught up in their discoveries, so drunk with their newfound power and prestige that they now claim to have all the answers to all the questions.

Of course, most psychiatrists today are gaga over the power of pills. Compared to the psychoanalytic therapy they had been offering, medication seems to represent a step in a better direction. Still, in many cases it is a step too far.

Therapists used to believe that it was all in the mind. Now they have gone to the other extreme, thinking that it’s all in the brain.

Whatever the cause of the problem with American children, America, Spengler writes, has been trying to solve it by prescribing pills and technology.

Imperiously, perhaps even tyrannically, it has diagnosed 10% of America’s children with one or another form of attention deficit disorder. And it has filled classrooms with computers, the better to make learning fun and creative.

But now, Spengler reports, physicians and psychologists are beginning to recognize that  Ritalin and Adderall are not as effective as we like to think, and that, over time, these amphetamines are actually harmful.

He explains:

Professor L Alan Sroufe's debunking of ADD medication in the New York Times contains this admission:

''Back in the 1960s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs. It turns out, however, that there is little to no evidence to support this theory.''

That is an astonishing statement: in the mainstream view of the academic psychologists, the brain is another pancreas, except that its function is to secrete thoughts as opposed to insulin. That is to say that the psychologists have a pancreas where their brains should have been. 

Pills are only the beginning of the problems here. Teaching with computers is a problem all their own.

In Spengler’s words:

Some months ago, the Times reported that test scores lagged in school districts that invested massively in digital education. [3] It does not seem to have occurred to the mandarins that computers cause attention deficit disorder. The brain is a machine, in the enlightened secular model, and so-called brain science teaches us to tweak its functioning with pharmaceuticals, or stimulate its development through digital approximations of intelligence. The grand result of a generation's worth of brain-science application is a generation of schoolchildren who are disproportionately illiterate, innumerate, anxious, angry, and unhappy. 

So, digital education does not work. We now know it does not work. Still, corporations are filling classrooms with computers and children are spending more time in computerized interactions than they do talking or listening to human beings.

We have replaced hard work and discipline with self-esteem and playful fun. When we see that children are not doing very well in school, so we diagnose and prescribe and technologize the learning experience.

Amazingly enough, in the land of the Tiger Moms, Ritalin or Adderall do not exist. If ADD and ADHD were neurological impairments that could only be treated by medication, how can it happen that the amphetamines we use to treat them do not exist in China?

Spengler explains:

Adderall and Ritalin, by the way, can't be found in any Chinese pharmacy (although expatriates can find small amounts of Ritalin at a couple of locations in Shanghai). It appears that Chinese children, who must memorize several thousand characters in order to complete elementary education, do not suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Two-thirds of Chinese children graduate secondary school, which involves a grueling exercise in memorization. As I reported earlier in this space, 50 million Chinese children are studying Western classical music (see China’s six-to-one advantage over the US, Asia Times Online, Dec 2, 2008). That's the same number of children aged 5 to 17 in America. Nothing builds attention span better than playing classical music. Granted that much of China's educational system teaches rote memorization, and that the majority of Chinese may not receive top-quality schooling, it is still the case that the absolute number of Chinese kids mastering high-level skills is a multiple of the American number. 

America’s children are suffering from our fear of disputing anything that is called science.

What can parents do or say when respected professional psychologists and psychiatrists tell them that their child is ill, is suffering from a neurological impairment, and needs medication?

Let’s be clear: the fault lies with the scientific community and its propensity for groupthink. Scientists are the only ones who are best qualified to see the problem. They bear the responsibility for the public misperception. That is why the article by Prof. Sroufe, quoted above, is so important.

Even if the pills and the high tech are aggravating the problem, I believe that it has another cause.

If American children are in trouble, doesn’t that tell us that the great cultural revolution of the past four decades has failed?

Beginning with the counterculture we decided that the nuclear family is a social construct. We now believe that it takes a village to raise a child. We have been told that quality time counts more than quantity time. And we have been told that mothers and fathers should equally be pursuing their personal bliss in the workplace.

You have to ask yourself: what’s left for the children? I do not want to reduce a serious scientific topic to a play on words, but still, how many of these children who are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder are receiving sufficient parental attention. How many of them are suffering from a deficit in parental attention?

In all the brouhaha over the Tiger Mom how many of us noticed that this woman, a professor in Yale Law School, was giving her children a lot of personal attention. 

How much of children’s fascination with techno-gadgets derives from the fact that parents sometimes use them as substitute parents? How many children are placed  in front of a television set or a computer screen because it keeps them quiet and makes them unlikely to disturb their parents.

For my part I have no quarrel with technology, social networking, television or the blogosphere. Yet, if children spend more time in front of a screen so that parents will be able to get on with their own activities, then clearly something is wrong.

It cannot be solved by pills and more gadgets. And it cannot be solved by going to the other extreme: helicopter parenting. A parent who is constantly hovering anxiously over a child is not interaction with the child, not communicating or conversing with the child. Ironically, helicopter parenting seems to be a way to compensate for inattention.

Spengler points out that the wizards of Silicon Valley send their children to schools where there are no computers, where learning takes place in a disciplined and structured environment, where, I surmise, self-esteem never enters the classroom, and where children learn more about classical music than how to take pills.

It’s quaint; it’s old fashioned; it’s positively retrograde. But it recognizes that without some old-fashioned, retrograde values, values that involve interaction with other humans, American children will continue to be in trouble.


Ari said...

I rarely disagree with Spengler. I mostly agree with him in this article.

However, I think computers do have a valuable place in education.

I speak specifically of programs like Super-Memo (I've had fantastic results with it with myself and my daughter) See:

Khan Academy is also extremely valuable.

Lastly, for increasing attention span, I think Play Attention has some value as well.

But overall, I do agree with the article.

Ari said...

It's worthwhile to mention that using any of the above-mentioned programs is more akin to drilling essential skills and less like playing games on a computer. They just take up the slack from the shortcomings of non-electronic means.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I understand his point to be that studies on the effectiveness of computer learning in the classroom have shown that they do not provide any real benefit.

I think that the question is whether they are used as an adjunct to close personal attention or whether the child is left in front of the computer on his or her own.