Greg Gibson of CBMW just offered a helpful minority-report on boys and ADHD. Though Gibson acknowledges that some children are prone to this condition, he calls for believers to not over-diagnose it in “Let Boys Be Non-Medicated Boys.” Gibson works with families in his pastoral ministry, and he notes this:
I talk with parents often about their intentions in medicating with Ritalin. I get it. They want their boys to succeed, have good grades, and not get in trouble, but there is a considerable complication with this manner of thinking. Sometimes, though, it might be needed. For instance, there are times when this sort of medication is medically necessary. I’m not a doctor, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know all the ins and outs, but I do think that because we live in a fallen world, there are cases where it might be needed. Even the goodness of boyhood energy is broken by the fall. But in most cases, I think we are getting the diagnosis wrong.
I sympathize with Gibson. Of course, I have no doubt that some children diagnosed with ADHD need specialized help. Our physiology is fallen, not just our spirituality. When ADHD really is a treatment-worthy issue, I’m thankful for counselors and specialists who step in to aid both boys and girls (because both sexes can have ADHD, though boys overwhelmingly do). Such assistance is part of a Christian worldview oriented to flourishing which seeks to help those who face inordinate challenges.
Having said that, I do think that some–probably many–boys diagnosed with the condition would, at the very least, benefit from an environment associated with traditional boyhood, and also from more involvement from a father. The fact that boys on average have 1000% more testosterone than women matters hugely, though our willfully gender-blind culture doesn’t often talk in these terms, for fear of upending the status quo. (Must believe the sexes are the same. Must believe the sexes are the same. Must believe the sexes are the same.)
Side comment: part of what I love about working with CBMW is that we can happily, without any shame, think about the world through gender-conscious lenses. This saves a lot of trouble, and creates a lot of clarity.
Anyway, boys desperately need physical outlets. Boys desperately need fathers to help them navigate life, learn boundaries, and channel their native aggression in productive ways. I myself have always had a ridiculous, even bewildering, amount of energy, and used to drive beloved family members crazy through my need to constantly play basketball. At an innate level, I craved activity and an outlet which would allow me to release my energy. After a long day at school, I would play basketball on many days and then play mini-basketball in my kitchen, sometimes for hours (interrupting this to watch basketball on TV–bit of a theme here).
I remember countless nights spent shooting around with my father and playing catch with him. That connection with my dad built our relationship and gave me the physical release I desperately needed. I feel for boys today who find themselves in situations that do not allow them to expend their natural energy in productive ways. It makes life very hard for them. Modern American schooling, for example, presents boys with many challenges. It’s understandably harder for boys to sit still, listen, and so on. We must train them to do so, of course, but we should also give them outlets for their irrepressible aggression.
Pastors need to help parents understand that most kids don’t need medication and professional help. They need fathers. They need mothers. They need discipline. They need freedom. When boys are bouncing off the walls, they’re being boys. When they’re expending truly shocking amounts of energy in sports or outdoor activities or in the hobbies they love (for not all boys love contact sports–a good number don’t), that’s just boys being boys. Nothing is going wrong; no one needs to be punished.
Families and churches, by contrast, need to help boys understand themselves. Pastors and parents can not only tolerate but celebrate the distinctive traits of both sexes. Young mothers raising kids, dealing with the manic fruits of boyhood: know that those little boys driving you nuts while dad is away need discipline, yes, but they’re also just being what God made them to be. Sure, you may feel yourself driven to distraction at times, but breathe easy. It will be okay. There are sports or books or stamp collections or musical instruments on the way. They will help greatly.
This is especially true when fathers are an active presence in their kids’ lives and their boys’ lives. How we weep for boys–for all children–who have no father. Boys in particular will not learn how to channel their God-given instincts to good ends. How thankful we are when fathers both play and discipline, both wrestle and teach. That involvement may seem small and unimportant. But in many cases, it can be nothing less than life-giving–and even life-saving.
Parents, be very careful about medicating your children. First, do all you can to love them, teach them, train them, have fun with them, and meaningfully discipline them. I suspect that if more families operated in this way, there would be a good deal less glassy-eyed boys, or wild-eyed boys, and a good deal more happy children who grow up and look back with profound thankfulness for fathers and mothers who loved them enough to celebrate boyhood, rather than medicating it.