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Susanne Antonetta Headshot

Leave It to Ritalin

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He is a father you know and trust, one who's spent a lot of time in your home. You like his sons. They're rambunctious but cute, the freckly one around eight, the other a young teen. You listen to this father, though, as he assures his wife it's no big deal their sons snuck out of the house late at night -- snuck from their upstairs room by climbing across a roof and down a rickety trellis. The boys followed this lapse by breaking into the younger one's school, ransacking the teacher's desk to steal back a fake snake he left in her desk to torment her.

"Kids do sneak out at night," says Dad, adding, "I used to."

He has a reputation as a good dad, but you are frankly worried. At this point in their lives, these boys have made sneaking out of the house a habit, especially while grounded. The younger one seems incapable of remembering anything, once leaving the bathwater running to the point that the waterlogged kitchen ceiling collapses. They've cut school, joined clubs with names like The Bloody Five, gotten into fistfights resulting in black eyes, and taken in, without permission, a macaque monkey who rampaged through the dining room and destroyed the table while their mother entertained guests. The younger one regularly brings home D's on his report cards.

Do you recommend family therapy to this clueless dad? Call Child Protective Services? Talk ADHD and urge him to get these two evaluated? You could simply change the channel. All of these incidents happened on Leave It to Beaver, the TV show synonymous with wholesome kids, good parents and family harmony. June Cleaver might fret about her boys' antics, but Ward always wrapped her in a hug, promising her that sneaking out of the house, fighting, and the rest of the mayhem was normal kid behavior. In the bathwater episode, the boys "fessed up" to causing the ceiling to fall, and Ward ended the show by saying if it hadn't happened, "we'd never know what nice boys we have."

Sure, it's television. But imagine a contemporary show featuring boys like this and parents like this: when Beaver comes home with a black eye, his father's main concern is that his boy is an ineffective fighter. I don't endorse teaching kids fisticuffs. Nor do I romanticize the 1950s. It's a very white world. And I love that now, in my marriage-equality state, June could be John, and Ward could do the vacuuming without the audience calling him henpecked.

But it's remarkable to be faced with a picture of happy family life in which one child, Beaver, seems incapable of remembering anything or getting good grades, and the other boy, Wally, has what we would term, at the very least, some major impulse control problems.

I first watched Leave It to Beaver around the time my son was seven, about the age of the Beaver. In Jin's grammar school, every school day began with "circle time," the exercise in which children sit in a circle and respond one at a time to a question. My husband and I kept hearing our son "had problems staying focused at circle time," a comment that eventually got darkly linked to suggestions we get him "assessed." When I volunteered in Jin's classroom, I found I could barely make it through circle time; the amount of pondering, head-tossing, and "umming" a 7-year-old can do while considering, say, what to name their class's hermit crab, defies belief.

In fact, in fifth grade, I had attention problems. My redoubtable teacher, Miss O'Sullivan, assigned the kid behind me the job of poking me in the shoulder with a sharpened pencil when my mind wandered. To this day, in my house, pencils with points are known as "60s Ritalin."

We did have Ritalin as a therapy for attentional problems in the 1960s; it simply wasn't dispensed as it is now. In the CDC's latest figures, 11 percent of all kids are diagnosed with ADHD, and a big chunk of those diagnoses were made before age six. No doubt we are catching more cases of attentional problems in kids that should be treated. I also have no doubt we are overdoing it, and have lost a common sense response to normal childhood behavior. You have to love the comments of the CDC's lead investigator, Susanne Vissner, who remarked of the early diagnoses: "A lot of symptoms of ADHD can also be appropriate developmental markers of age."

I've tried telling therapist friends about the boys' behavior in Leave It to Beaver, omitting the fact that it's a TV show, and just cataloguing the misdeeds.

"Oh boy, get them assessed now," says one.

"Get them assessed yesterday," says another.

I understand that television is television. I still think that treating as a disorder behavior that would have been regarded as normal -- even lovable -- a few decades ago may indicate we've set our disease radar a little too high. What Leave It to Beaver gets right lies in the fact that the kids in the show aren't presented as little adults, who should already know you don't deal with problems by breaking into a school or cutting classes. Rather, they're viewed as inhabiting a very different stage of life -- one in which they learn, slowly and painfully, how to make mature decisions. The parents' role is to guide them in that process, and reward them for any and all steps forward. Even if those steps involve ceiling tiles smashed across the floor.

How would I respond to D grades, overflowing baths, and rampaging monkeys? Not well, I admit. But I'd like to think I could find it a little endearing, and even funny, rather than immediately diagnosable. Ward also told June it turned him on when she vacuumed in her pearls. Maybe the two of them have more than a few things to teach us.