My husband’s sister has two children. Her oldest, 15, was diagnosed with ADD when he was 9, and has been on Ritalin since. He’s failing out of the private high school he attends in Manhattan. He lies, cheats, and steals when it suits him. He is volatile (way beyond normal teenage angst), and often violent with his mom and sister.
Her daughter, 11, also has trouble in her private school. According to her mother, she too has learning disabilities. She has very few friends, and is often cutting and cruel. She also lies constantly to get what she wants, and does whatever she wants regardless of opposition from authority.
The three of them live on the 10th floor of a posh apartment complex, in a huge flat overlooking the Hudson River in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty, holding the torch of truth stands boldly in the bay and can be seen from almost every room of their home. My sister-in-law and her ex-husband are very successful in their careers. She broke the glass ceiling only a few years out of graduate school and is now a top executive at the New York Stock Exchange. He is an architect. His style is distinct, and sought after, and can be seen all around Manhattan. Since both claim to be busy professionals, the maid of the month raises their kids during the long work week.
Every time we get together they virtually drop off their kids to my care. Dad, before and after the divorce, has always been a marginal part of the scene, off to work, or squash, or rollerblading along the waterfront. Mom stays with us, but she’s not really with us. She’s on her phone texting her secretary, or chatting it up with some high powered executive about market trends, or on her laptop writing reports. She goes out for a two hour run, or off to the store for diet soda. The entire time we’re together she has little to no contact with her children.
My sister also has kids, a boy and a girl, a couple of years apart. During their formative years she was a stay-at-home mom…sort of. Her husband, a successful real estate broker who used his limited free time for cycling, skiing, rock climbing, provided his family a McMansion with all the trimmings in a desirable suburb north of L.A. He hired a live-in maid to clean house and handle the mundane aspects of child care so my sister could pursue her many muses. And pursue them she did. She played tennis several hours a day. She went out with friends; shopped, and shopped; redecorated her house every year. She took classes in cooking, massage, religion, exercise, went to music camps back east for the summers, and left the kids with grandparents, or the revolving housekeepers. She was one of those soccer moms who sat in the stands and gossiped, or read People or Jane, or was on her phone every other minute, attending the game but not really there.
Unable to manage her son’s disruptive behavior, my sister took him for counseling when he was 10. He was diagnosed with ADHD. He took Ritalin from 12 until he was 20. Now 27, he smokes pot every day, pays his rent and bills with poker winnings and a small stipend from an inheritance trust fund, has not gone to college and has little prospects for the future. Her daughter, 24, is still only a junior after six years in college. She’s had few friends over the years, even fewer dates, and only recently her first [very] short term relationship. She lives on the money her parents provide without a clue how to make it on her own.
These two sets of kids struggle in life because their parents consistently catered to their own needs over those of their children. In doing so, they abandoned their kids to their own device, and left them to strangers, relatives, and society at large to raise them. Restrictions on behavior came from teachers, religious leaders and caretakers as commands—discipline imposed without love. Their parents didn’t bother to invest the staggering amount of time and thought required to help their kids decipher feelings, or examine abstractions like morality or values, or why they are important, or impart to them the seemingly endless list of rules we all must follow to get along.
The other day I was at the neighborhood pool watching my kids swim and play. All went well until a well-known rowdy kid arrived with his mom. She stood with her back to the pool and chatted on about her job, the upcoming hundred mile extreme run she was training 20 miles a day for, and the third Bruce Springsteen concert she and her husband had been to that week. She did not notice her nine year old son shoving kids into the pool, holding them underwater, pouncing, splashing and causing general havoc. Most everyone agrees her son, and six year old daughter, have severe ‘discipline’ problems. Though their mom labeled them ‘passionate,’ she admitted she was seriously considering her colleague’s suggestion to have her kids examined for ADHD.
Even Wikipedia can not state without dispute what ADHD actually is, though a wide cross section of sources seem to agree it’s a ‘behavioral disorder.’ Symptoms include Hyperactivity—like working all day, everyday, never putting your cell phone or laptop away; Inattention, the lack of ability to focus for an extended period of time—like creating multiple distractions such as tennis, classes and vacations for your entertainment instead of following through with any one thing. Impulsiveness is also an indicator, like going to see Bruce multiple nights in a row instead of doing the responsible thing and being at home with your kids.
Though they possess all the symptoms, these parents have never been diagnosed or even suspected of having ADHD, even though most have had at least some experience with therapy. Their kids did not inherit their lack of focus. The Attention Deficit Disorder they ostensibly suffer from by and large comes from parental neglect, adults who haven’t figured out that once they produce children, most of their own priorities must become secondary to the needs of their kids.
Rich or not, working—having to, or not—parenting is about paying attention, being attentive and present, being there when you’re with your kids. Certainly, rules need to be continually taught and enforced, but also discussed at length, not handed down as edicts from on high. Kids need detailed explanations, reasons to partake in our code of ethics, and out of desire, not disdain. Society is not sustainable filled with resentful children who grow into parents that never mature beyond self-interest. Children can not raise themselves above solipsism without example from those who have.
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