Why so few French kids have ADHD

At least 9 percent of U.S. children are medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, compared to less than .5 percent of French children, writes Marilyn Wedge in Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD in Psychology Today. Wedge is the author of Pills are Not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids. 

While U.S. psychiatrists see ADHD as a biological disorder treatable with drugs, French doctors “look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress—not in the child’s brain but in the child’s social context.” They try to treat the underlying problem with psychotherapy or family counseling.

In addition, French parents are  more likely than Americans to teach their children to control their behavior.

Pamela Druckerman highlights the divergent parenting styles in her recent book, Bringing up Bébé

. . . From the time their children are born, French parents provide them with a firm cadre—the word means “frame” or “structure.” Children are not allowed, for example, to snack whenever they want. Mealtimes are at four specific times of the day. French children learn to wait patiently for meals, rather than eating snack foods whenever they feel like it. French babies, too, are expected to conform to limits set by parents and not by their crying selves. French parents let their babies “cry it out” if they are not sleeping through the night at the age of four months.

. . . Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure.

Raised in families where the adults are in charge, French children learn to control their behavior without the need for medications, concludes Wedge.

What’s the most loving thing you can say to your child? According to my husband, the father of three successful adult children, the answer is: “No.”

Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

The American way to self-control

American parents can teach their children self-control without emulating Asian “tiger mothers” or strict French mamans, write Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of  Welcome to Your Child’s Brain in a New York Times commentary.

Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, “is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playground,” they write. “She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention.”

But, non.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure.

. . . Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.

It’s not that easy to teach self-control, responds Daniel Willingham on his new blog.

The authors suggest that “rather than trying to emulate the strict discipline supposedly instilled by child-rearing techniques in other countries, it may be more useful to consider the science of successful parenting in general.”

Uh, actually, the science of successful parenting shows that children who are high in self-control are more likely to come from homes with house rules.

The suggested “American” strategies — find a hobby, encourage imaginative play, teach a second language, promote aerobic exercise — aren’t likely to work, he predicts.

The successful “Tools of the Mind” curriculum uses lots of imaginative play, but . . . it requires a skillful teacher (and a set of ground rules as to how the drama is to be carried out) for the strategy to work.

A hobby might help self control if the child is (as the authors say) passionate about it, and so learn that hard work is necessary for a desired payoff. But again, you’re sort of leaving a lot to chance if you hope that your child will develop a hobby consonant with that, and will actually stick with it. (I’m reminded of the 13-year-old son of a friend, who calmly told his mother “Mom, don’t you get it? Watching TV is my hobby. It’s what I do.

Willingham isn’t arguing for  ”strict parenting,” he writes. The “science of parenting” shows that “parental warmth, and a predictable, organized home environment” are associated with self-control.

Willingham writes here on what teachers can do to increase students’ self-control.