09 June 2014

Rowdy Boys, Daydreaming Girls and The Role Of Social Niceties in ADHD Diagnoses

So this was a neat thing that my local NPR ran: More And More, Young Women Are Being Diagnosed With ADHD

While this segment was really interesting and very important to the larger discussion of chronic over/under diagnosis of learning disabilities in kids, I found it interesting that no one even tangentially touched on the social factors that make this discrepancy a reality.  Basically no one said, or even fully alluded to, the idea that since boys are less expected to be well socialized, their symptoms present differently.  Basically it is not that girls are by nature more likely to daydream instead of tossing spit balls, it is that boys have rowdy behavior tacitly endorsed for longer.  Since girls are conditioned early to be nice, polite and quiet while boys are told that "boys are rowdy and boys will be boys," it should come as no shock that boys with ADHD symptoms act out in more noticeable ways or, that as the unfortunate downside of the same phenomenon, get over diagnosed with ADHD when they are acting exactly as society expects them to*. 

This hypothesis was well represented in an experience we have over spring break at a library events.  Long story short, there was a 20 minute presentation by a local farm about chickens then the kids got to play with some baby chicks.  All the preschool to elementary school aged kids did well for about 10 minutes then everyone started to get a bit restless.  While the boys seemed to lose focus first, by the 15 minute point everyone was over the "lecture" portion of the show.  The fact that kids in this age group could really only take 15 minutes of structured instruction didn't surprise me at all. That is pretty universal for all small kids. What did surprise me was the parental reaction.  When girls got restless and started to distract others, a parental unit would almost immediately swoop in and redirect back to the task at hand.   When boys got restless though, no one did anything. Like, at all.  At the end, he parents of the boys commented that the teacher "lost the kids for a bit" or "failed to keep them engaged,"  while many parents of girls wished that "someone would have stepped in with the one particularly loud/distracting trio of boys."  

Now, all these parents are wonderful people.  I know many of them personally and don't consider any of them to be outright sexists. These are all loving, dedicated parents whose position of privilege means they can be 100% engaged with, and supportive, of their kids. Basically this is  a group of parents in whom you would expect to see the most egalitarian, "support all kids in all things" kind of  mentalities.  Yet, these entrenched gender norms persisted and everyone seemed to be very comfortable with the dynamic that said norms enforced. 

So, it seems to me that a lot of how "boys can't settle down like girls" might actually be "we are culturally conditioned (even though we might logically know better) to believe that boys can't settle down like girls, so we don't bother to expect it."  Because we (as a cultural unit) don't intervene with boys social behavior as much as girls, boys don't get as well groomed into the behaviors that are valued by traditional classrooms. Our lack of asking for boys to try and mold themselves to social niceties tacitly endorses rowdy, disruptive "boy" behaviors.  

This is certainly not meant to imply that boys are inferior to girls (do I even have to say that? I will, just to be safe).  This is not meant to discredit that all kids, though to a large extent along gender lines, develop differently, because they certainly do.  This doesn't mean that schools are not poorly designed for boys, they are by virtue of being poorly designed for small humans independent of gender.  This absolutely doesn't mean that parents of boys are doing a bad job, or are inferior parents to those raising girls (again, you know my position on judgmental parenting: don't do it).  

What it does mean is that we are doing boys a huge disservice by assuming that they are not capable of developing these skills right alongside girls.  It means we are doing girls a huge disservice by forcing them into socialized roles that we don't expect of boys**.  It means that in order to parent, teach or support boys we need to get out of our culturally entrenched beliefs that boys somehow "can't" be successful at these valued social behaviors.  We need to recognize when behaviors are, or are not, age appropriate and adjust for kids' personalities, not their gender by default, so everyone can eventually get to the "functioning human being" phase of life. We no longer find it acceptable to tell girls they can't be good at math or science, so why do we feel comfortable telling boys, in the most insidious and passive ways, that they can't be good at listening and learning?  While no one really needs to be "looking out" for culturally-white middle-class males, it does seem to me that all kids would be better served by not buying into this gender discrepancy BS when it comes to social behaviors.  

*The idea that boys are over-medicated because we identify traditionally "boy" behaviors as ADHD is definitely true, I just think we just need to ask if those are really "boy" behaviors or are they just kid behaviors that are less modulated by our cultural expectations of boys?  The question should not be "but what about the uber-special-ness of the boyz?" it should be "how can we help all kids to progress so we can identify, and provide interventions for, genuine learning issues?"  The double edged sword of "we can't change boys behavior", but "we think boy behaviors are pathologically too problematic" really doesn't help anyone, especially young boys. 

**Believe me when I tell you that my girls have zero fucks to give about being quiet, or settling down for school, or using nice words and good listening ears.  The difference is that I ask it of them.  Mostly because I personally have no patience for impolite public behavior (with the usual kid-factor disclaimers here) and because I quickly learned that as a mom of little girls, it was expected of me. I honestly believe they are no more or less capable than boys, they are just more used to being asked and eventually, like all things with kids, it has begun to stick.  Additionally Charlie was very ready for social niceties at 4.5 and fits the classic "nice girl" profile while Liz at 4.5 is just not there yet (though I certainly ask, and ask and ask again).  Unfortunately, Liz will be judged more harshly for her lack of interest in social skills than her boy peers.  Basically, under the gender binary of social niceties, no one wins. 


Alicen said...

This is so true! It is amazing what boys tend to get away with. I do see it with girls but typically in the type of family where the parent doesn't care about anything but themselves and the kid pays the price.

I have the opposite. The boy has the naturally good behaviors and the girl is off her rockers active and loud. She will be labeled as the "bossy" girl and I have been questioned already if I will get her tested. That would be a NO. There is nothing wrong with her, she does not have ADD/ADHD. She is just a VERY active, loud, boisterous little girl who would rather be doing then sitting. Oh and she is 4. I am very thankful she likes school because with her personality that could go downhill very quickly.

This is not to say that there is no one on this earth who genuinely has a problem and needs treatment but just because a kid is active does not mean they have a problem and can't focus. If I thought something was up I would take her in a heartbeat but there is not, she just isn't fitting into society's definition for a "girl". I think your little speal summed it up quite nicely. It is my job to teach her how to use these traits in a productive manner but I refuse to change her personality or make her become something else. The traits she has are wonderful traits (especially for a woman in todays world) and they will help her become successful later on so I will never tell her to stop being "bossy" but instead will ask her to use kind words and be polite to people. It always amazes me how different expectations can be!