All the employees of school districts on a witch hunt to expel and otherwise permanently punish young boys for shooting toy guns or forming their fists into the shape of a gun need to read Back to Normal.
The purpose of psychologist Enrico Gnaulati’s 2013 book is to argue how ordinary childhood behavior is often misdiagnosed as ADD, ADHD, depression and autism — frequently with life-long, disturbing consequences. But along the way he raises the taboo question of whether we “label boys as mentally unstable, behaviorally unmanageable, academically underachieving, in need of special-education services, or displaying behavior warranting school suspension just because their behavior deviates noticeably from that of the average girl?”
He adds, “In a sense, girl behavior has become the standard by which we judge all kids.”
He cites numerous studies showing that typical boy behavior – wrestling, rough games of tag, good guy/bad guy imaginative play that involves “shooting” — are condemned by preschool and elementary school teachers, the vast majority of whom are women, without the behavior being redirected appropriately to release boys’ “natural aggression.” Boys who play in the way noted above are not on a path to mass murder, contrary to what zero tolerance school policies suggest. For the vast majority of them, they are simply on the path to manhood. I wonder how many of us who recognize that truth still stifle our boys’ rough play or cowboy shoot outs out of fear of the new rules – reinforcing the capriciousness of regulations in young minds who will one day asked to make them.
Without changes to rigid policies and attitudes about what constitutes good behavior, we will be on a path as a society to generating mass confusion and depression in boys whose natural tendencies are being relabeled as criminal traits or medical problems that need to be treated.
This is not just an existential threat. As unorthodox feminist Camille Paglia said recently in remarks at American University:
Extravaganzas of gender experimentation sometimes precede cultural collapse, as they certainly did in Weimar Germany. Like late Rome, America too is an empire distracted by games and leisure pursuits. Now as then, there are forces aligning outside the borders, scattered fanatical hordes where the cult of heroic masculinity still has tremendous force. I close with this question: is a nation whose elite education is increasingly predicated on the neutralization of gender prepared to defend itself against that growing challenge?
If that sounds crazy, is it wrong to worry how the massive increase in the number of children taking anti-depressants and other drugs as a result of skyrocketing diagnoses of ADHD, bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder will impact their lives?
Many drugs used to treat the above disorders cause serious problems, including mood swings, sleeplessness, weight gain, weight loss and slower growth. And then there is the long-term impact of a mental health diagnosis, which can create a sense that the child is not in control of his actions because it is purely a chemical imbalance in the brain.
As Gnaulati writes, however, in many cases it’s “causes — plural, not singular — that explain why a child behaves the way he or she does.”
“On any number of occasions in my practice over the years,” he writes, “I have seen how a mildly depressed or ADHD-like kid can be transformed by a change of teacher, a change of school, signing up for a sport, a reduced homework load, a summer abroad, a front-of-the-class seating arrangement, a month living away from home with an even-tempered aunt, or any of a host of other everyday steps.”
Many forces conspire to push a mental health diagnosis, from rules on health insurance to schools achieving certain goals under federal No Child Left Behind law. Gnaulati’s book should give parents struggling with a difficult child hope that their child may not be permanently mentally ill, but going through a difficult stage that can be treated without medication. And it should give school administrators perspective on how best to handle unruly boys and channel their energy without condemning their nature. At the very least, we don’t need any more boys suspended for chewing a Pop-Tart into a gun.