Parenting puzzle

A few months ago, I did a post about out-of-control children who seemed to be the product, not of biological pathology, but of boundary-free parenting.  A couple of weeks ago, I did a post about parents who were afraid to exert control over their children because of their fear of Child Protective Services.  And last night, I finally got around to watching a Frontline that’s been sitting on our TiVo, which discussed the huge increase in children diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (which is the new ADHD), after their parents and their teachers failed to control them.  These children are then given a whole pharmacopoeia of drugs.  The show’s focus was the fact that the drugs haven’t been tested on children, but I couldn’t help wondering whether many of these children were being mistreated by being given drugs in the first place.

As with the out-of-control children in the first mentioned post, where I freely admitted that I’m sure a number of them have genuine organic problems, I’m equally sure that many of the children diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or ADHD have true organic disabilities.  But all of them?  The millions suddenly getting these diagnoses?  I do wonder whether, if one did a Venn diagram of the issues raised in my three posts, one would discover that there’s a substantial overlap between parents who are afraid to parent, parents who have children who are out-of-control because they have no boundaries, and parents who put their children on drugs, which is now a socially acceptable way to control otherwise wild children.

Causes Parental Suffering

Its official name is Child Protective Services (and most parents recognize its acronym, “CPS”), but I have to think that my post title more accurately describes it, especially when it’s aided by busy-bodies — people who don’t really want to help a situation, but who do want to cause a little excitement in their lives. I have a collection of CPS stories — all of which happened to friends, family or neighbors — and they’re a reminder of what happens when you set up an agency that exists only if it can ensure that a sufficient problem exists to justify its mandate. With details changed to protect people’s identities, here are the CPS stories of people I know well:

In the era before digital cameras, a young mother had her baby asleep in the car. She wanted to drop film off at one of those parking lot photo booths, so she drove to a parking space immediately adjacent to the photo booth. She got out of the car, locked the car, walked the few feet to the photo booth, and conducted her business. What she didn’t know is that, during the few minutes she was away from her car, a busy-body had seen a baby inside, written down her license plate and then reported her to CPS. Based on this witness’ testimony, CPS went after her with a vengeance. I never heard how that one ended up, but I assume it did the way so many of these stories do: with CPS guaranteeing itself the right to look over the parents’ shoulder forever.

Last year, a mother with a 5 year old and a 3 year old went to pick her 5 year old up from preschool. The 3 year old was napping in the car, so she parked the car in front of the school where a bunch of other parents were milling about, locked the car, grabbed her 5 year old and hustled back to the car. Total time gone: about 4 minutes. When she got backed to the car, a woman grabbed her, announced a citizen’s arrest, and reported that she’d already called the police. The police showed up, arrested the mother, and she’s now negotiating with CPS for custody of her children. I know her well and can guarantee you that she is in all respects an exemplary and loving mother — nor is CPS saying otherwise.

A mother had a running battle with her 13 year old about the fact that the latter liked to leave her plugged in blow-dryer next to the bathtub. The teenager refused to believe that this was an electrical hazard. Eventually, one morning, the mother took the blow dryer away. The daughter left the house in tears, bewailing the fact that her mother was cruel for leaving her with un-styled hair. A neighbor called CPS. CPS stormed in and informed the mother that, henceforth, she was not allowed to take away any of her daughter’s possessions or interfere in any way with her daughter’s grooming, or discipline her in any way. Doing any of those things would give CPS justification to remove the child. No one — including CPS personnel — claimed that the mother had done anything other than remove her daughter’s blow-dryer, making her cry.

A mom got into a fight with her 10 year old son about household chores. The 10 year old went to school and, aided by his friends, told the teacher he was being abused. The teacher called CPS. CPS arrived, and the 10 year old son, when pressed, stated that the abuse consisted of the fact that his mother sometimes forgot to buy milk. There were no other allegations against her and, again, every indication was that she was an attentive, loving mother (as attested by her other three children). CPS required her to go to child-rearing classes and kept up surprise inspections for over a year. She was told “comply or lose your child.”

Parents of a newborn took their child into the pediatrician about a spot on the child’s arm. The pediatrician found nothing wrong but over-worried parents. The next time the mom saw the pediatrician, she complained that she and her husband were sleep deprived and their tempers were fraying. The pediatrician called CPS. Solely on the basis of the one doctor’s visit and the mother’s statement about frayed tempers, CPS arranged with a prosecutor to have the father charged with child endangerment and threatened him with the loss of his green card and deportation.

I had my own little run-in with a busy-body the other day. I had some books to return to the library, but my kids, 7 and 9 at the time, elected to stay in the car and play with their video games. While I was in the library, an elderly couple came running and told the librarian, “You need to call the police. There’s a [describing my car] car out there with two infants in it.” I listened into disbelief and then announced to the librarian, “That’s my car, and Bookworm 1 and Bookworm 2 are playing their Nintendos in there.” Within a second of receiving this information, the librarian relaxed completely and hustled the couple away. She knew my kids and knew this was a ridiculous charge. However, if I hadn’t been right there, I’m sure she would have called the police and I would have had to answer to charges of child abandonment.

Those are just stories I know. I bet all of you have stories.

By telling these stories I am not denying that there are terrible cases of child abuse going on around us. Nor do I deny that affluent communities can have child abuse too — although I’d be willing to bet that, no matter how politically correct you want to be, child abuse is going to be more prevalent where people are dogged by poverty, crowded housing and substance abuse. In each of the cases I’ve described, the problem was that a busy-body went off half-cocked, and CPS came in with all guns blazing, using its massive power — mostly in the form of a threat to remove children — to charge parents with criminal acts, to entitle CPS to free run of a home, and to remove from parents any ability reasonably to discipline their children.

It’s this last that has always gotten to me. When I was a kid, my mother had two weapons in her arsenal to deal with naughty behavior. When I was very little, she put me in a playpen. In there, I was safe, I was near her, and I had to learn to entertain myself. When I got older, my Mom spanked, with her hand. She didn’t beat me, she didn’t whip me, she didn’t strike out randomly. She made a rule and, if I broke it, there was a quick “whap!” and it was over. I usually didn’t break the rule a second time, and I never broke it a third. In my house, we all knew the rules, and my Mom could trust us a lot. My Mom didn’t have a lot of residual anger, either, because the house ran like a well-oiled machine. It was very peaceful.

My kids are lovely human beings but, when they were little, they were distinguished by being exceptionally headstrong, impulsive and independent. My kids had no off switch, nor was I able to provide one. Because I was afraid of CPS, I didn’t put them in play pens (instead, I cordoned off my entire house) and I tried never to use even mild corporal punishment. When they broke a rule, the response was “time outs” and “removal of privileges” and “long talks” — all of these with children under six. My spirited children couldn’t have cared less. Time outs didn’t affect my energizer bunnies in the least. Removal of privileges? Who cares? Talks? Great.

What all this meant was that, for me, parenting was unbearably frustrating. I had enormous responsibility and no power whatsoever. I ended up doing what any reasonably intelligent person would do under those circumstances: I put them in preschool. Having them around was too much work and too little pleasure. Preschool made their behavior issues someone else’s problem. And because I had a good preschool, and because my kids are great people, and because I love them very much, things have turned out pretty darn well. I do wonder, though, if I would have kept my children home more if the threat of CPS hadn’t made me such a passive parent that it was easier not to have my children around at all.

What do you all think? Do you have CPS stories? Can you defend CPS — not in its role as defender of genuinely abused children, but in its role as bully of the middle class?

A parenting question for all of you

We just discovered that one of my daughter’s “best” friends has been lying about her computer use to her parents. She tells them that she’s going to an approved kid website, such as Club Penguin, and then, when they’re not looking, goes surfing for sex sites. (Did I mention that she’s ten?)  My daughter, bless her heart, told us what’s going on, because she was made very uncomfortable when shown a website with “naked people.” My daughter has no problem with our decision to limit her contact with that friend so that their out-of-school interactions (which my daughter hopes to see decrease in frequency) happen only at our house.  So that’s not the issue.

Here’s the issue:  I think I should tell the girl’s parents.  My daughter is, of course, worried that her friend will figure out that she is the source — even if the parents claim to have discovered the problem through browsing the computer’s history.  I appreciate my daughter’s concern, and I certainly don’t want to turn her into a social pariah, but I still find unnerving the thought of a child, too clever by half, wandering around alone in the big, ugly world of the internet.  Do you think I’m right to want to tell the parents?  And if you do think I’m right, how would you broach the subject?  Should I recommend to the parents a strategy (such as saying that they discovered the problem by checking the computer’s history), so that my daughter doesn’t get nailed as the stool pigeon?  Or do I just reveal the problem and hope that the parents don’t disclose my daughter’s identity?  I’m worried that, if I just ask them to keep my daughter’s identity secret, without giving them a strategy, they’ll do something stupid such as saying, “One of your friends told us that you’re checking out bad places on the computer.”  The other girl would have to be a complete nincompoop not to figure out that the friend is my little bookworm.

See — parents can serve as role models for their children

For those of you who worry that pop culture, and not the parent, serves as the role model for children, think again.  This bizarre story shows that at least one Mom is helping her daughter achieve the mom’s goals:

A Petaluma woman and her 16-year-old daughter were arrested on suspicion of shoplifting clothes together at a department store in Corte Madera. Sandra Lorraine Berg Martin, 43, and the teenager were detained by Macy’s security after they were observed smuggling clothes out of a fitting room Friday, said Twin Cities police Sgt. Jim Shirk.

After being confronted by security, the two were taken into a store office, where they produced three stolen dresses, three shirts and a jersey from their shopping bags, Shirk said. The items were valued at $1,006.

Sigh….  Really, what can you say about a story like this?  One hopes that this is one child who does learn to rebel against parental influences.  She’s with her grandparents now.  We can only hope that the grandparents weren’t the ones who taught her Mom the shoplifting skills.

Unwitting little brownshirts

One of Hitler’s most evilly inspired ideas was to go after the young people, and turn them into spies in their own parents’ homes.  It’s so much easier to grab children’s minds, and parents never assume that, not only are their children watching them, they can be co-opted, innocently, into ratting them out to people with a political agenda that has nothing to do with good parenting, or privacy, or freedom.

Why am I going on about this?  Because I finally caught up with Michael Graham’s post from October about the spies among us, and we’re not talking about little Al Qaeda-philes following us in the park.  Instead, he’s talking about the Massachusett’s pediatricians’ official policy of interrogating children about their parents’ lives.  After describing the grilling his daughter underwent during a routine visit to the pediatrician (“I send my daughter to the pediatrician to find out if she’s fit to play lacrosse, and the doctor spends her time trying to find out if her mom and I are drunk, drug-addicted sex criminals.”), Graham sums up the bigger issue:

Thanks to guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and supported by the commonwealth, doctors across Massachusetts are interrogating our kids about mom and dad’s “bad” behavior.

We used to be proud parents. Now, thanks to the AAP, we’re “persons of interest.”

The paranoia over parents is so strong that the AAP encourages doctors to ignore “legal barriers and deference to parental involvement” and shake the children down for all the inside information they can get.

Of course, it makes perfect sense in a Nanny state.  Since the State views itself as ultimately responsible for the children, parents get marginalized as breeding machines and full time babysitters, who must prove themselves to the State as appropriate employers.

One woman Graham spoke to, who switched pediatricians after being offended by the questions asked of her daughter, tried to explain away the pediatrician’s conduct, but Graham would have no truck with excuses:

“I still like my previous pediatrician,” Debbie told me. “She seemed embarrassed to ask the gun questions and apologized afterward. But she didn’t seem to have a choice.”

Of course doctors have a choice.

They could choose, for example, to ask me about my drunken revels, and not my children.

They could choose not to put my children in this terrible position.

They could choose, even here in Massachusetts, to leave their politics out of the office.

But the doctors aren’t asking us parents.

They’re asking our kids.

Worst of all, they’re asking all kids about sexual abuse without any provocation or probable cause.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared all parents guilty until proven innocent.

And then they wonder why we drink.

Birth control pills for little girls

I’m still irked about the middle school in Portland, Maine that had the bright idea to bypass parents and give birth control pills to little girls. My irritation goes beyond the fact that the school district is using a very small number of pregnancies and bad situations to usurp parents’ control over and relationship with their children; and it goes beyond the fact that the school district is encouraging sexual activity in younger and younger children because of its decision to enact an overarching policy that actually responds only to the needs of a few. That is, as to this last point, while the policy may be a response to a small number of pregnancies, children now understand that it’s okay to have sex in the school district because there’s a policy in place. Bad, bad, bad. So, those factors are irritants.

But what really, really bugs me about this new decision is the nature of the pill itself. This is not like handing out condoms, which are a barrier method and don’t mess with biology. This is about giving significant hormone doses to children who are still working their way through puberty — and doing it without the parents having any say in the matter. (And I am so willing to bet that the approving parents are the same parents who buy organic so their children don’t have to get hormones in their milk, a problem that is nothing more than an urban legend.)

By the way, if you think you’ve heard this rant from me before, you have, but I’m at it again because of yet another study showing that the pill is not just an innocuous substance that coincidentally stops pregnancy. Instead, it is a powerful actor on a woman’s (or girl’s) body, that can have dangerous side effects outside of preventing conception. Here’s today’s news about the pill:

Women who use oral contraceptives are at increased risk for developing hardened arteries, a condition that can lead to heart attack or stroke, according to a study released Wednesday.

Belgian researchers found that women who had used this hormone-based form of birth control were more likely to have plaques, or a buildup of fatty tissue, on their arteries than women who did not.

Atherosclerosis, the medical term which refers to a build-up of plaque inside the blood vessels, typically occurs with age.

Complications include heart attack or stroke, which occur when unstable pieces of plaque break off and block a blood vessel leading to the heart or brain.

The findings do not mean women should abandon this form of birth control, the authors cautioned.

“The implications are not that women should stop taking the Pill. They should look at reducing other risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” said Ernst Rietzschel, a cardiologist at the University of Ghent in Belgium.

The last bit, about women being informed consumers is all well and good, but your average 12 year old is not an informed consumer, and the Portland, Maine policy removes from the information loop the one set of people who almost certainly care about her more than any other people in the school:  her parents.

By the way one of the other serious risks of being on the pill is cancer. Again, your average 11 year old isn’t going to think that one through.  And about just the problems of being on the pill.  Most women complain about unpleasant weight gain, but a few unlucky ones get genuinely ill, with chronic nausea and vomiting.  That’s not good for a growing child either.

Is it really a correct diagnosis?

I’m about to write something provocative, so feel free to beat me up on it, provided that you do so politely. It’s about the increasing prevalence of Asbergers diagnoses amongst children. Asbergers is a rather amorphous condition, although it’s considered to be part of the Autism spectrum. Here’s the definition from one medical website:

Asperger syndrome (AS), one of the autistic spectrum disorders, is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. AS is commonly recognized after the age of 3. People with high-functioning autism are generally distinguished from those with AS because autism is associated with marked early language delay. Other characteristics of AS include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, limited interests or unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. Generally, children with AS have few facial expressions. Many have excellent rote memory, and become intensely interested in one or two subjects (sometimes to the exclusion of other topics). They may talk at length about a favorite subject or repeat a word or phrase many times. Children with AS tend to be self-absorbed, have difficulty making friends, and are preoccupied with their own interests.

In my day, we all knew kids like this and we were cruel to them and called them geeks. There’s a lot to be said for recognizing the symptoms, accommodating the children’s needs and, especially, teaching them social skills so that school, a place where they often excel academically, is not a living hell. In other words, I have no doubt that Asberger’s exists and that identifying it is beneficial.

Where I’m about to get controversial is my sense that, in some cases, Asbergers is the diagnosis given to children whose parents are not parenting. I know three — count ’em, three — children who are nightmarish behavior problems. What characterizes all three of them is the uncontrollable temper tantrums they have. And I’m not talking about 2 or 3 year olds lying on the floor hollering “No!” I’m talking about kids who are 7 or 8 or even 11 or 12 and who regularly engage in scenes that involve uncontrolled screaming, hurling insults and, often, physical violence against other adults or children. Because of the scenes — and only because of these scenes — each set of parents eventually took the child to a psychiatrist. That is, the parents did not take their kids to the psychiatrists because they weren’t socializing well or because they were obsessed with a single subject at school. They took them because of those off-the-charts tantrums. In all three of the cases I know, the psychiatrists diagnosed the kids with Asbergers.

But here’s what I didn’t tell you about those three children: In each of the three cases, the parents (in my humble estimation) earn an “F” for structure and discipline. The common pattern in each of those households is that one or both of the parents feels an almost excessive sympathy for the kid when he (or she) is frustrated or unhappy. What the child wants, the child gets. One of the children I’m thinking of ruled the whole household. She dictated what was eaten, what wasn’t eaten, where people went, what they did, what bed time was, what toys and games were bought and rejected, etc. The parents thought that they were making her happy, but to an objective observer, the child was miserable. It was way too heavy a burden to place on a 10 year old, and she was a frenzied, hysterical tyrant who was unable to cope if anything didn’t go her way.

What also characterizes all of these parents is that, when the child has a tantrum, regardless of how awful it is, and what havoc it creates, the parents respond, not with discipline, but with sympathy: “The poor little thing. He couldn’t control himself. He was so upset I didn’t have the heart to punish him.” And in each case, this sympathetic response to the child’s tantrums worsens after the diagnosis. Now the parent is not only sorry for the child, but he’s convinced that the child is “sick” and must be handled with ever greater care.

As it happens, I know a child who was diagnosed with autism, although it’s not entirely clear that this is an accurate diagnosis. What is apparent is that his speaking skills are extremely limited, to the point where only those closest to him can understand him, and his body often doesn’t respond to his brain’s signals. With a child like this, you might excuse the parents for treating him as something other than an ordinary child. But they haven’t. Instead, in addition to all the work they do to get him beyond his disabilities, they also treat him like a real child: the expect certain behaviors from him (good listening, good manners, etc.), and if he doesn’t live up to those behaviors, he gets the same consequences any other child would (loss of privileges, time outs, etc.). The result is that this child has turned into a delightful human being. The rigorous structure has also enabled him to blossom at an intellectual level, and he’s demonstrated an over-the-top IQ and the academic abilities to match. Had his parents let him turn into a screaming monster because “they felt sorry for him,” he never would have been able to develop this potential.

Now here’s the question for you: Do I sound like a smug parent who (blessedly) has developmentally normal children and lacks compassion for those who are not so lucky? Or have I spotted a trend where parents who cannot create boundaries between themselves and their children are aided by a therapeutic community that either cannot bring itself to call parents on their behavior or that has itself lost a sense of a child’s need to be treated like a child?