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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Grownups gone wild
Our handling of misbehaving kids defies common sense

One of the hallmarks of any good teacher, parent or child-care provider is the ability to keep cool in the face of toddler rage. It's not easy, especially at the end of a hard day.

Hence those 'grocery store moments' ' when you realize you've become the mom in the grocery store everyone glares at, dragging your kid kicking and screaming down the aisle. There's nothing quite as humbling as doing battle with your irrational 2-year-old in public ' and being KO'd.

In the old days, frustrated parents routinely beat their small children. But by and large, we've matured as a society. We know more about child development and, even if we forget it occasionally in the heat of the moment, we have better ways of dealing with our children than threats and brute force.

At least I thought so, until I read about the school officials in Avon Park, Fla., who called the police to arrest a tantrum-throwing kindergartener. She was, in the words of Avon Park Police Chief Frank Mercurio, 'yelling, screaming ' just being uncontrollable. Defiant.'

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert interviewed the unrepentant Mercurio, who described how two officers struggled to pull the little girl out from under a table and put handcuffs on her biceps (they slid off her wrists). When Herbert raised an eyebrow, the chief shot back: 'Do you think this is the first 6-year-old we've arrested?'

Apparently not. A report titled 'Arresting Development: The School Discipline Crisis in Florida,' sponsored by the Florida NAACP, notes that schools are turning to police with more and more frequency to deal with minor discipline problems.

'Children are being arrested, booked, handcuffed and sent to court for minor misconduct in school,' in Florida and across the nation, the report states. The 'school-to-prison pipeline' affects minority kids the most.

Zero-tolerance policies and perverse incentives in 'the testing and accountability movement' are among the reasons researchers posit for the rush to remove kids who drag down scores.

But there also seems to be a society-wide failure to put normal childhood behavior in perspective. In other words, we're in the midst of a nationwide grocery-store moment.

In The New Yorker, the medical reporter and physician Jerome Groopman marshals more evidence of a national crisis in child-rearing common sense. The article details the rise in diagnosis and drug treatment of pediatric bipolar disorder.

Apparently, bipolar disorder, once called manic depression, is the new attention-deficit disorder ' a fad diagnosis that is leading psychiatrists and parents to medicate preschool-age children, despite dire side effects and precious little research to back them up.

Groopman traces the boom in pediatric bipolar diagnosis to the husband-and-wife team of Demetrius and Janice Papolos, who are authors of a popular book for parents called The Bipolar Child. Demetrius, a psychiatrist affiliated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, has made a cottage industry of diagnosing his readers' children (and could not remember a single case in which he didn't conclude that the child in question was bipolar).

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has declared that 'the validity of diagnosing bipolar disorder in preschool children has not been established.'

And psychiatrists at Washington University have established a second-opinion clinic for an influx of parents of 'bipolar' children ' many of them inspired by the Papoloses' book. 'Undiagnosing' these children (who have been given drug cocktails that can lead to obesity, diabetes, fertility problems and ovarian cancer ' not to mention emotional harm) is the secondary market spawned by the Papoloses' work.

Like the police response to school discipline problems, the medical response to children labeled bipolar seems to boil down, in most cases, to adults overreacting to normal child behavior.

Judge Moria Krueger, newly retired Dane County circuit judge, recently reflected on this issue in an interview with WisKids Journal, a publication of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Krueger started her career as a juvenile defender, and helped draft the 1978 juvenile code, which emphasized treating kids differently from adults in court, and strove for the 'least restrictive means' of dealing with juvenile offenders.

In 1996, Krueger reflects, the state reversed course. The revised code got rid of the 'least restrictive' goal, made it possible to treat 10-year-olds as delinquents and mandated that all 17-year-olds go to adult court. It was, Krueger says, 'the major change that has occurred during my lifetime as a judge.'

At the same time that the government was deciding to treat kids more like adults in court, Krueger points out, new research on brain development was showing that kids think differently from grownups. Adolescents, in particular, do not have the same capacities that adults do to understand consequences or make rational decisions.

In other words, we know what kids are like ' that they are different from adults, and need to be held to a different standard. We know that adults are responsible for keeping our cool and making rational decisions that are in the best interests of our children and our society.

But instead of using what we know, we are reacting emotionally to perceived threats from 'superpredators' in the schools, or relying on push-button tactics like lock-up and drugs to deal with kids who need attention and mature guidance.

It's the grownups, not the children, who are falling short here.

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