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.
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.
Older children and teens are faring no better. More than 11,000 antidepressant prescriptions are written for children and adolescents every weekday, according to an article in the Family Therapy Networker. That's an increase of over 50 percent since 1994. And the research suggests that all these prescriptions are being dispensed not by mental-health professionals but by pediatricians and family doctors on the front lines who do not consider themselves adequately trained in the management of childhood depression.
These alarming statistics prompted the Surgeon General and the National Institute of Mental Health to hold meetings in September and October 2000 to discuss children's mental health issues and the administering of psychopharmaceuticals to young children. The government is currently working on a national action plan based on recommendations from these two meetings.
Meanwhile, the question remains: Why are millions of children a year being sent to pharmacies instead of to psychotherapists? The obvious answers are managed care, which reimburses for medications instead of the harder-to-quantify results of talk therapy, and Medicaid, which limits children's access to mental-health practitioners. But if people get the government they deserve, maybe our society is getting the health-care system that reflects our real family values, as opposed to the ones we like to think we have. We parents spend enormous amounts of time and money doing things to our kids rather than being with them; why shouldn't doctors do the same?
Spiritual guides have long described this responsive connection in lyrical terms. In his book "Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest," Wayne Muller describes it as "being Sabbath." It's a lovely idea. Being Sabbath means quieting ourselves so that we can hold onto children's busyness, sadness, fear, and loneliness. "We become space, that our loved ones, the lost and sorrowful, may find rest in us," he writes. "Not fixing, not harming, not acting." Being Sabbath means setting aside our plans and goals and dreams for our children's futures, and being willing to live with them in the present moment. Being Sabbath means setting aside the urge to do things to kids. It means trusting instead that time spent simply being with them -- offering a gentle touch, listening to their long-winded stories, gazing into their eyes whether they are laughing or crying -- is sacred and deeply nourishing. Being Sabbath means making time for children's play, and sharing it with them, not because it's "educational," but because children at play are their truest selves.
Like many spiritual things, being Sabbath is a paradox: when we give children less of what we think will "fix" them, we give them much more of what will really help. By pausing to listen and respond with the voice of the heart, caring adults share the soothing, strength, and calm that children need to grow and thrive.