Toss the Pill, Spare the Child

What's the best way to get your kid to sit still? Create a Sabbath state of mind

Winter's end is a mixed blessing here in the Hudson Valley. No more shoveling, no more heavy coats, but no more snow days off from school, either. Snow days are a Sabbath that takes us by surprise. A hush blankets the neighborhood, broken only when the plow passes up the road, crunching the snow against the curb, and the dogs bark. There's no homework to worry about; the teachers haven't had a chance to assign any. In the afternoon, the kids bundle up and traipse off to the sledding hill in the park or build a snowman in the front yard. But mostly we welcome the day as it takes its own shape, fix pancakes for breakfast, sit together over the comics at the kitchen table, watch the snow fall.

It's a way of being that families seldom share today, and that's not just because we're all so busy. In light of the round-the-clock stimulation and organized activities many parents seem to think today's children need, time spent just being with kids seems pointless. As a culture, we have ceased to trust in the holiness of sharing simple presence and relationship. Once upon a time we set aside nonproductive time and called it "Sabbath," and we honored the command to remember and keep it holy. These days we like to make things happen.

Children with learning and behavioral problems are the hardest hit by this trend away from relationship, because these days when their parents bring them for professional help they are more likely to be offered a prescription bottle than a visit to a flesh-and-blood therapist. The grim statistics published some time ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) tell the story. And the federal government responded with an appropriate level of alarm by announcing a multipronged effort to reverse this trend. But changes in the medical and pharmaceutical approaches to children, though urgently needed, won't be enough unless the adults in children's lives reclaim the nurturing and healing power of simple Sabbath presence.

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Here are the numbers staring up from the page on my desk: In just five years, from 1993 and 1997, prescriptions of selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft) for kids 5 and under increased 10 times in the U.S. Prescriptions of the blood-pressure medication clonidine, used in the treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, were up nearly 30 times. Three thousand Prozac prescriptions were written in 1994 for infants under a year old. We Americans are not alone; a study in Strasbourg, France, showed that 12 percent of children starting school were receiving psychotropic medications.

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Jean G. Fitzpatrick
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