Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#80, March 28, 2000


by Marylaine Block

It seems there's an epidemic of attention deficit disorder these days, and our response is to drug millions of kids, even two-year olds, with stimulants and Prozac. Are you wondering, like I am, what's going on?

When I was a kid, we had a name for kids who constantly wiggled in their seats, drummed their pencils on the desk, interrupted, and cracked jokes. We called them boys.

But teachers understood that sitting still for hours at a time is hard, especially for little boys who seem to have more need to be rowdy and physical. Teachers just made sure kids could discharge all that explosive energy during recess and gym class.

As the number of kids who can't sit still has increased, and they've grown more disruptive, it may be that we're redefining boy behavior as pathological (boys are diagnosed and drugged four times as often as girls). The availability of a quick, medical solution invites teachers and parents to consider boyhood a disease.

But I also think it's harder for kids to pay attention now than when I was a kid, when the world was better adapted to the needs of children. Kids need continuity, and everything about our world is now discontinuous -- it's like the whole world is nothing but jumpcuts that don't make sense.

Children's most basic need is consistent attention from a few caring adults, which was more readily available in the day of stay-at-home moms, and dads who came home from work every night, and grandparents who lived nearby. Now, working moms rushing to put dinner on the table and get the laundry done have little time and emotional energy for listening to their kids, and dads and grandparents may not be in the picture at all. Kids in daycare often get only sporadic adult attention because of the rapid turnover of poorly-paid staff.

My generation also grew up reading. Now, one nice thing about books is that they teach us to sit still and pay attention, so we can follow a story all the way to the end -- but if we do miss something, we can go back and re-read it. Stories in books make sense. They have beginnings, middles, and ends, everything contributes to the story line and theme, and causes lead to effects.

Television doesn't stand still, and it makes no sense at all. It keeps moving, whether you understand what happened or not, and it's interrupted by entirely unrelated commercials. Teachers say their students have a seven-minute attention span, because TV hardly ever goes more than seven minutes without a commercial.

Kids have learned to disregard interruptions on TV shows and reassemble stories in their minds from the bits and pieces that flit past and vanish, but that's an entirely different intellectual task from reading. The act of mental reconstruction became even more challenging as MTV-style editing took over, with jumpcuts between unrelated scenes down to tenths of seconds.

And how can kids make sense of the discontinuities of music that spill from the very walls and air? A car drives past blasting a rap song, while the TV plays a commercial with an opera aria, while mom's radio plays oldies in the background.

TV news lacks any context and makes no sense at all -- no story exceeds 40 seconds, or has anything to do with the story before or after it, and grave news of world crisis is followed by ads for heartburn remedies.

And now we've given our kids the web, which cultivates impatience; every story invites us to click away before we've even finished reading it, and if it doesn't download within ten seconds, we say the hell with it and go on to another site.

ADD may have become epidemic because our world has become actively hostile to patience, to silence, to quiet thought. But it may also be that WE are too impatient, too short on time to pay attention to our kids, too eager for the quick fix of Ritalin or Prozac.

Perhaps, if we turned off the TV and radio and computer, and spent more time reading to our kids and listening to them, they'd be able to pay attention better.

And maybe their world would be more worth paying attention to.

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