Children with Character

When I was a child, in the early days of the growing phenomenon that eventually became known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – before the harsh, punitive medications we now use to control children with character, my caregivers accommodated, as best they could, my curious nature.  In response to what I believe to be the disastrous burden placed on unsuspecting children by their misinformed caregivers, and drawing from my own experiences as an energetic, intelligent and misunderstood child, I will offer an intervention strategy for helping to improve the futures of children who, instead of having a disease called ADHD, have, instead, a misread and underappreciated gift.

For eating chalk, I sat behind the piano.  For pulling a worm from my nose, I sat in a chair outside the classroom; For general misbehavior, I was sentenced to sit in Murderers’ Row – a special line of seats and desks set aside especially for inquisitive, energetic and distractible children like me – mostly boys.  I was often the sole inhabitant of Murderers’ Row, so, sitting at the first desk in the row, I imagined I was at the head of a series of empty rail cars, chugging across the Pacific Northwest, The Little Engine That Could.

Learning to read, identify colors and do simple mathematics was often achieved from hearing, alone.  I traced my finger on the shiny, painted cinder block wall, making letters, numbers and symbols that I imagined accompanied the lessons that were being taught. A leaf was green.  A fire truck was red.  The sky was . . . blue – and so was the wall in front of me.

I didn’t need to actually see to learn.

I was Helen Keller! Only I could hear.

I adapted.

As punishment for living in my imaginary world, where so much more was possible than in the world in which my classroom merely existed, I would have to write lines –

I will not yell out. 

I will raise my hand and give others a chance to answer. 

I will not aim for the face when playing dodge ball. 

I will take my own bus. 

I will eat my own lunch.

After a while, I simply expected to break the rules and, as a condition of parole, write lines.  I was so confident that I would be found deficient in nearly anything I tried each day in school, I wrote out part of the sentence in advance – the part of the sentence I knew would be there no matter what I had to write – I will not.

I filled my desk to the bursting point with reams of paper; hundreds, thousands, millions, trillions of partial sentences that would only take a few more words to complete – freeing me to do as I pleased.

I will not – turn my eyelids inside out.

I will not – cut in line.

I will not – take powdered soap from the boys’ room.

The crinkled paper with the partially completed sentences written hurriedly across each page spilled out on the floor beside my desk and was the first thing to greet me every morning when I came back to school.

The number of school-age children (ages 3-17 years) who have been diagnosed and treated for ADHD is estimated at 5.2 million.  Following diagnosis, and when placed under psychiatric management, the treatment of ADHD is expected to involve some combination of medications, behavior modifications, lifestyle changes and counseling.  Often, however, the treatment of ADHD is limited to psychotropic medications, alone; leaving children drugged and with less potential than they had previous to the diagnosis.

The symptoms of ADHD can be difficult to differentiate from normal childhood development, increasing the likelihood that the ADHD label will be misapplied.  Impulsivity, emotional fluidity, lack of concentration and variability in mood and behavior are all observations suggestive of ADHD.  In addition, due to the constraints of time and opportunity, the diagnostician will often rely on caregivers, teachers and other adult historians for the longitudinal (biased) data necessary to formulate the diagnosis.  Rather than estimating the potential contribution to the child’s conduct made by the caregiver’s own level frustration tolerance, environmental conditions or early and current parenting style, the child’s behavior becomes, instead, a treatable disease, cured, ostensibly, with drugs.  A kind of no-fault provision in the implied contract between caregiver and child – a provision where the caregivers is absolved of responsibility for the child’s behavior and the child is found blameless for h/er poor choices.

After all, it’s a disease.

As early as the 1970s, when the ADHD diagnosis was first starting to gain momentum, it was, even then, considered a controversial, exploited and mismanaged psychiatric disease of childhood.  (Only recently has the disease become diagnosable in adulthood.)

At a time when the developing brain is highly susceptible to damage by intruding chemicals and other caustic substances, the use of stimulant medications for management and treatment of ADHD in children has become standard, rudimentary practice among healthcare providers.

I find the whole process repugnant.


As a boy with more energy than I had support for my ambitions, I spent a great deal of time, instead, trying to be like other children.  I remember watching the best-behaved students in my class – mimicking their movements, believing that if I shadowed them, talked like they did, I would be good too.  If one student moved her hand a certain way, I would move my hand just like she did.  If another student sat quietly, his hands folded on his desktop, so did I.  But my plan didn’t work. Nothing could save me from my teachers’ suspicious gazes. They simply didn’t trust me.  They were skeptical of me, even when I was behaving like one of the good kids.

One day, toward the beginning of summer and the opening of spring – a miserable time for a child with character who is stuck inside all day, separated from frogs and swamps and tree limbs, my teacher, the originator of Murderers’ Row, said, “Michael, let’s try something NEW!”

“Sure!” I said, taking my shoes out of my desk and slipping them on.

While the rest of the class was reading silently, my teacher took me to a small foyer in the back of the classroom.  He carried a chair in one hand and a TV tray in the other.  He clung to a bag of marshmallows under his left elbow.  He set the chair down, “Sit,” he said, pointing his chubby finger at the wooden seat, and unfolded the TV tray, clipping the legs into the plastic slots.  He broke open the bag of marshmallows and placed one on the table in front of me.  “I want you to sit there for twenty minutes and, if you can control yourself and not eat the marshmallow, I will give you two.  You can eat it any time you want; but if you can control yourself for twenty minutes and not eat it, I will give you two.”



I remember sitting in the chair for what seemed like hours, waiting for twenty minutes to elapse and I could eat the marshmallow in one bite AND have another one to boot.  Every now and then a student would turn around and give me a knowing glance – to which I stuck out my tongue and returned my gaze to the lone marshmallow sitting on the tray in front of me.

I ate it.

Nineteen minutes later, my teacher returned.  “Hmmmmm,” he said, hands on his hips.  “You couldn’t resist?”

I smiled, looking up at him, my red hair hanging just above my eyebrows.  “Nope,” I said.  “I almost did, though.”

“We can try it again tomorrow.”

Over the course of that spring, my teacher did the same experiment with me every day (sometimes two or three – maybe four times), until I was capable of not only making it through twenty minutes to achieve my second marshmallow, but I had strengthened my resolve and built my frustration tolerance to a point where I could sit for over an hour with little or no reward at all.

My willpower, my self-discipline, had increased dramatically. I had trained myself and built the neurological connections necessary to not only improve my frustration tolerance, but to make it a habit!

I still recall this memory of my teacher’s systematic instruction – his dedicated effort to teach me to focus my attention on a goal – to commit the proper amount of devotion to the task ahead of me.  Toward the summer, when school was letting out and I was free to roam the woods, quarries and sand pits in my neighborhood, that lesson helped strengthen me by creating an atmosphere of achievement and success that I could use to grow and improve.  Over time, my willpower, self-discipline and loyalty to my goals improved – leaving that place in my brain, the one that defined who I was as an individual, intact – where I could be myself and something more.

I am still the child I have always been, unimpeded, spontaneous and impulsive – instinctive and unrehearsed.  I am myself, unadulterated and un-medicated.  I enjoy myself and my unique perspective, and I have learned to live with all of my strengths and weaknesses, even when these traits are not as well received as I would like them to be by others.

Instead of thinking we will all be better off after taking pills, conceding to others and how they think we should be, deadening our intuitive nature to explore and challenge our understanding of the world, we may remember that our brains have immense possibilities that pills will never improve, but only creativity, inventiveness and ingenuity can achieve.


16 responses

  1. Fantastic article! I hope many will read this well articulated post about your experiences. If we blame it all on disease there is no accountability anywhere. I have witnessed this over and over again. Problem behavior, it is ADHD, lets give him a pill. There is nothing we can do about it….. Medicating is not always the answer, thank you.

  2. A little bit of holding someone accountable and not placing blame somewhere else tends to go a very long way in finding a solution that does not require altering a young still growing brain with chemistry.
    This man who called himmself teacher failed you. After all,that,what was his lesson he had in mind? I think he saw you as disruptive wrongly so. and rather than spend a few minutes of quality time learning who you might be, a kid who marched to his own drummer which I see as something we should celebrate. Not condemn, try to change with medications and behavior modifications.

    I think I rather like you just the way you are, ala naturelle!

    • hey you!!! goodness i am behind in my emails to you! i will say that this teacher did balance things out a bit by doing the marshmallow experiment . . . i did benefit a great deal and to be honest murderers row wasnt all that bad 🙂

      • You are so kind and for that I can take and feel the full impact on my own in a wonderful way. Thank you Michael!
        Maybe I even have a teacher in your life to thank for that. I get the marshmellow experiemnt balancing things out. You also can give ( I trust you do) credit to where its due – that which lies in you. Had you not been open, had you been defensive and fought it all the way would it have absorbed as well?

        Its good for this mom’s heart who could see that little boy in Murderers row wondering WTH anyway…. to know that today it is all part of where you come from, not the “where” you have to put in a place that is protective.

        Thanks so much for sharing with me on a personal level. Means alot.

  3. What a great post. Your story reminds me a lot of my own childhood and I see so much of it in my son’s life now – we both have ADHD albeit mildly. I still maintain it is the most wonderful gift – not a curse. The curse comes from how others perceive it and refuse to understand it.Thanks for this inspiring article.

    • thank you very much for reading it. adhd when handled properly by a dedicated parent is a gift and should be nurtured rather than eradicated. where else in our world culture do we set out from the start to weaken a gifted child? cheers! and good luck. you have a lot of work ahead of you but your child will be stronger and more successful as a result of your added effort.

  4. Pingback: Children With Character |

  5. My son and I share the challenges of dealing with focusing on the task ahead……. I as his gather have a challenge of dealing with a smaller version of my wife and i feel for her, but love her that much more for having the patience with both of us. Great article and i 100% agree with being unimpeded, non-medicated and unrehearsed for both myself and my son. I have learned to manage without being medicated and will teach my son the same things that help me from day to day like making lists, focusing and refocusing and improving on his will power to stay at the task at hand. THANK YOU!

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