Tuesday, March 27, 2018

GUEST BLOGGER Alisa Pittaluga: Boyhood Is Not a Disease

The Favorite Son: competing and being a boy.
Why we are failing our sons and what we need to do about it?

The current ages of my three sons span from toddler to teen, and so my world is now consumed with everything boy. My oldest child who recently left for college, is not only a beautiful young woman, but also a convenient model for comparison in my now boy-centered world. I am worried about my boys. I believe boys in this country are in trouble. How many boys, compared to the number of girls do you know who have been diagnosed with a learning disability? How about prescribed psychiatric medication? Diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder? Diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Autism?   

A lot more boys, right?

Our education system, our culture, and our medical professionals have been waging war on boys. Elementary schools today are staffed mostly by women. Anyone who has ever worked in a female dominated workplace knows that the atmosphere is much different than in a male dominant work place. Young boys are brimming with energy, which is not appreciated in elementary schools today. Assignments, topics, rules, and expectations are all geared toward female students. From the time they start kindergarten, boys get that message that their activity level and interests are wrong. Add Common Core to the equation and now you have over-stressed teachers trying to cram developmentally inappropriate curriculum into too small a time span. Truncated recess and physical education to make more time for classroom instruction confound the traditional male learning style.

Expectations for kindergarten students today are equivalent to the expectations for a second-grader just a generation ago There is little socialization play and significant book learning and computer time. This approach is a disservice to young children who are multi-sensory, learn through movement, touch, sound and vision. A one-dimensional medium, i.e. looking at a screen, does not produce learning. By contrast countries with the best education systems, such as Japan and Finland, incorporate much more play and movement into the early years. And no testing. Other countries know and acknowledge the basics about boys: boys are less able to sit than girls, boys require more physical activity.

Now in the United States, kindergarteners come home and, rather than being able to play after their long day of sitting in school, regularly have an hour of homework. Five-year old boys are routinely diagnosed with ADHD because they can’t sit through kindergarten (or their homework) and are medicated. These medications have short term and long-term side effects. And, medicating gives the message to boys that they are not okay the way they are and a pill is the solution to all problems. Is this really a message we want to give our young boys when drug addiction is an out-of-control problem in this country already?

Our culture has become outrageously and ridiculously hyper-sensitive. Any form of aggression is not okay. Anything even resembling a weapon is not okay. Competition is not okay. Standing up for yourself is not okay. Killing animals for food is not okay. Being too loud is not okay. Even looking at a woman in the “wrong way” is not okay. Men and boys are in a precarious position.

A seven-year old student in Maryland was suspended from school for
using his imagination and making his Pop-Tart look like a gun.
The natural instinct of the human male is to protect, to fight when threatened, and to compete for power. Men are driven by their desire for respect. A man who does not protect his family and stand up against a threat cannot gain respect. Yet, the feminization of our culture communicates boys from the earliest age that all of their instincts are wrong. Let’s face it, if you watch two eight-year old boys playing there is a lot of noise and a lot of aggression. There is usually some type of made up weapon, wrestling, screaming and shoving and . . . they love it. This play, common among many mammals and, in particular, most primates, develops skills in boys that will make them develop into strong men. However, these behaviors are no longer permitted in our schools.

Recently, my son told me that he was playing football at recess. He had the ball and elbowed his friend out of the way while running. The lunch monitor pulled him out and screamed over and over “Why would you do that?” My other son pushed another boy at recess because the boy told him he was a better football player. The boy pushed back and they moved on. I received a call from the school from the principal who said to me, “I’m not sure why they would do that.” I responded, “They’re boys. That’s the reason.”

At home, we are a firearm responsible family and have guns and a gun safe where the firearms are securely stored. My husband hunts and teaches my boys to hunt. I believe if we eat meat, my sons may as well know where it meat comes from. There are people that won’t let their kids near a house with a gun. And believe it or not, many boys want to hunt. Hunting was the basis of society and was rite of passage for boys throughout history. Yet, boys are unable to talk about hunting in school. At Thanksgiving years ago, my preschool age son drew a picture of a turkey and told the teacher we chopped the head off and then cooked it. Not surprisingly, his teacher asked for a special conference to discuss the “situation”. 

As an Occupational Therapist (OT), my job is to evaluate and improve the child’s level of functioning. I have learned in my 18 years of being a therapist that the there is always a reason for a behavior. OTs are put in a unique position. Because OTs do not diagnose conditions or prescribe medication, many have become master sleuths to answer the question, “Why does this child behave the way she (he) does?” We have to look beyond the most likely causes and consider the less than obvious- like sleep, lights, sounds, touch, and reflexes. Did the child start the behavior after a certain food? After a vaccine? After being in a crowded loud room? Behavior is a symptom. Even nonverbal kids give clues. A ten-month old who repeatedly bangs his head on the floor is suffering from brain swelling from a vaccine reaction and is trying to relieve the pressure in his head. The autistic child who becomes aggressive after lunch just ate gluten and now has severe stomach pain.

Health management organizations and socialized medicine encourages quantity and not quality. As such, doctors now spend less than five minutes with patients. There is absolutely no way they can get to the root of the problem in that amount of time. A parent goes to the pediatrician and says her son won’t sit still in school. Rather than an answer and a course of treatment, the parent leaves with a prescription. Unfortunately, medicating the symptom without resolving the problem only exacerbates the problem and long-term side-effects from the medication can be profound. 

So, how can we save our boys?

Do your homework. Question everything that is injected, prescribed, or fed to your son. Do your research. The number of vaccines given to children has quadrupled since the mid 80's. Kids eat more sugar and processed food than real food. Children take more medications than ever before. Still, diagnoses of childhood diseases including autism, ADHD, and obesity among others have never in our history been more prevalent. And, research suggest the biological make-up of boys is such that they react more severely to toxins in food, medications and vaccines. Hence, this may contribute to the increase in diagnoses among boys.
There are many health professionals who can get your son on the right track such as chiropractors, naturopaths, functional medicine doctors and craniosacral practitioners, to name a few. Consider how your son spends the majority of his school day. The environment where he spends his time is crucial to his self-esteem and well-being. The academic success of a five-year old is not the are not the most important thing. Consider his emotional health first or he will be less likely to be successful in the long run.

There are alternatives to public school including home-school and private school. A parent can put all the boy-friendly activity and boy-friendly curriculum you want into the day. There are many great private schools out there that offer more hands on and outdoor activities for boys.  And many of them will work with you on finances. If circumstances preclude home schooling or private schools, there is still much a parent can do within the constraints of the local public schools. Remember, generally, teachers are not the enemies. They, too, are trying to survive under immense pressure. Have and open dialogue with your son’s teachers about movement and sensory breaks throughout the day. Many teachers may be more than willing to bring these things into the classroom. Say no to homework in the early grades and opt out of standardized testing to relieve the stress on your son. Most teachers will accept your limits on homework if you explain up front that your child is having trouble with the amount assigned. Help your son select boy-friendly research topics and boy-friendly books. Introduce these to the teacher if they are not already used. There are even books on finding boy-friendly books.

Alisa Pittaluga
And lastly, let your boy be a boy. Restrict screen time. Let him play in the dirt, wrestle, fight, run, and yell. Let him take risks. Question everything. Resist the culture and teach your sons that being a boy is not wrong.

Having earned an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from New York University, Alisa Pittaluga has worked in pediatric occupational therapy with infants through teenagers for nearly two decades. She is the mother of three boys, ages 2, 10 and 14, and a 19-year old daughter. Alisa lives with her husband of 20 years and her children in Orange County, New York.