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What's up With All the Occupational Therapy?

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Dear Catherine,

My son is a bright, energetic 5-year-old who has trouble sitting still. In other words, he's a 5-year-old boy. There are a lot of little boys (and of course, some girls) like this in his Pre-K class, and naturally the classroom can be chaotic. Or at least it has been during drop-off and pick-up. Over the past year I've realized that a lot of the kids in my son's class have been sent to occupational therapy for various issues. Some kids go once a week! It wasn't until a teacher recommended that maybe my little guy could benefit from a meeting with the occupational therapist that I thought this was strange. Sure, my son might be a little too unfocused, but I don't remember anyone of our generation being "evaluated" before we even hit kindergarten. Is the school overreacting? Or am I under-reacting?

–Mom of Captain Energy

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Dear Mom of Capt. Energy,

Boys. Since I don’t have one, I am completely bewildered by this species. When I learned that my first baby was a girl, I had a little cry. I’d really been counting on a boy and was utterly terrified of the complexities a female offspring would invariably bring with her. Having grown up with nine brothers, I thought I knew boys. Pas de prob.

Or so I thought.

The truth is I still would love to have a son, but after nine years of playgrounds, classrooms and playdates, I’d be equally—if not more—apprehensive of that baby boy than I was with my two girls. In short, boy children are maniacs.

Well … let me amend that. On the whole, American boy children are maniacs. Having spent a lot of time with French little boys, I will allow that they are usually more spirited than their female counterparts but, for the most part, they’re not out of control in the same way as our little guys here. Rarely will you find a French mom look wearily at their petit fils climbing the furniture in restaurant and say, “Boys. What can you do? They are just born wild.” Fine—that mama would be speaking French, but that’s not the point. If her kid were acting inappropriately bananas, she would put a stop to it (especially in a restaurant—mon dieu).

Apparently, being chill is a learned behavior.

We American parents have fewer rules and expect modest standards of behavior from our kids. It’s no wonder that these little dudes can’t sit still in school—they’ve never been taught to control themselves anywhere else. Further, when our young boys watch a television commercial or sitcom, the idea that their chances of future self-disciple are slim is repeatedly enforced. Grown men on TV seem more like big babies who need a level-headed lady to hold them back from harm.

I had a chat with one mom who lives in Los Angeles throughout the school year, and then goes to France with her children every summer. Her hypothesis is that here in the U.S. we don’t let our kids spend enough time alone, quietly entertaining themselves. We assume, especially with the boys, that they need to be constantly stimulated, letting off energy and engaged or they will implode. Ironically, it’s this incessant titillation that has them scaling the walls. Apparently, being chill is a learned behavior.

Add to all of this the theory, recently revitalized by the New York Times, that ADHD is often misdiagnosed, and the hyperactivity seen in young kids is actually the result of sleep-deprivation. It makes sense that the little male Frenchies are more manageable, as France routinely wins as a country that gets more sleep than most others.

As far as your question goes, I don’t think you are “under-reacting.” Rather, I lament that evaluating (and then, sadly, medicating) our kids for this hyperactivity has become de rigueur. I’ve no doubt that there are many children out there with compromised attention spans who would surely benefit from seeing a therapist, but I’m also convinced that this isn’t always the solution. If you already demand high standards of behavior and your son sleeps like a champ every night, maybe he does need a doctor (but even at age 5, it seems a bit early to go that route). If not, see what happens when you raise the expectations at home and tranquilize the pace of his life (not him!).

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In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a total spaz. I love how kids in this country are so spunky, confident and animated. With a dose of real boundaries and faith in their abilities to be cool, I think we can hold onto that and bid adieu to the other, more berserk, side of things.

Viva la Ritalin Resistance,

Catherine

Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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