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The Impossible Child - Page 3


I'm reminded that six months ago Evan rolled around on the floor at the Parents' Breakfast while his classmates stood in two neat rows singing Woody Guthrie favorites. At the time, Mr. Warren, the director of his school, characterized Evan as a "contrarian." He meant this in a vaguely complimentary way, and I actually took some comfort in his description. I could imagine a contrarian growing up to be a social activist, an artist, even a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But in the fall of Evan's second year of preschool, Mr. Warren's view of my son's future took a turn. He began describing him as "disruptive," "aggressive" and, on one occasion, "violent." He hinted that his school might not be the right place for Evan and suggested that we get a "behavioral analysis" at the university psychology clinic. I was furious--and grateful--that he didn't seem to remember that I analyze behavior for a living.

In our culture, we don't take kindly to children who refuse to do what they are told. We label them with euphemisms, such as difficult, willful or spirited. When these kids show up in my office as early as age 3 or 4, their parents--often tearful, angry, guilt ridden--want quick advice about how to win the battles they are losing. In single-minded pursuit of control, they contort themselves and try to twist their offspring into whatever shape fits their idealized notion of how parents and children should behave.

Sometimes these families don't seek help until the children run into trouble at school. There, where the rules don't bend, kids who push against the system are punished for their resistance. And parents are held culpable if they can't, or won't, make their kids knuckle under.

If their defiance persists, we call these kids maladjusted, antisocial or delinquent. We send them to the principal, to the school counselor, to a therapist--perhaps to their physician and a pharmacist. When these efforts fail, we send them to the judge, to the parole officer, to the warden.

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