THE ESSENTIAL STRENGTH
Nowhere in life do we see love burn more brightly, work harder, and achieve more than in the relationship between a parent and a child. This is real love. Messy love. Nonstop, -never—off—duty love. This love forever changes you. When you have a child, you enter into a permanent state of psychosis. You go crazy. You fall insanely in love with the little baby, whether the baby is adopted or born to you. For first—time parents this love is new and quite unexpected. It’s a feeling we’ve never experienced before. We never knew we could become so selfless, so willing to give up everything for our baby. Buoyed by this lifelong, blessed madness, we plunge into the adventure called parenthood. To assist us in doing the most important and most difficult job in the world-raising a child-our single greatest ally is the protean force nature provides parents called love. And what a love it is! We doctors do not celebrate, honor, and emphasize it nearly enough. In this book, however, we do. Here, in our framework, love initiates and supports everything else. Love is the cornerstone of the model we build.
That’s because love is the single most powerful tool you can use to draw out your child’s strengths. How wonderful that it’s free, instantly available, and all but inexhaustible. It -doesn’t do the whole job, but without it the job never gets done right. Love works unpredictably, in that you have no idea what strengths you are drawing out while you love your child. But if you keep loving and trusting that love, over the years the strengths will emerge. Without love, however, they often do not, or they emerge deformed. So keep your faith in love. Don’t ever give up on your child or on the power of love. Sometimes it is all you’ve got. But no matter how hopeless or desperate you may feel, if you keep on loving, your child’s gifts will appear one day, perhaps to your total surprise and the surprise of the world, like wildflowers growing through crevices in a granite rock.
Trust the process love initiates. Always listen for the song your child is trying to sing. Search for the instrument your child is destined to play. Look for the person your child is trying to become.
Those are not just pretty words. They define what matters most in raising children, especially those who have the fascinating, widely misunderstood trait called ADD. These kids particularly need someone who can perceive and draw out what is wonderful within them. It can be a selfless and frustrating process, one that only the best parents and teachers can stick with. But it is also true that any parent or teacher can be one of those best parents or teachers.
Some kids slide into life easily. They don’t need anyone to listen for the song they are trying to sing because they are born with a song the world already sings, so they naturally join right in. They are born with the instrument they are meant to play. They grow into the wonderful person they are meant to become without a glitch or a crisis. Life is free and easy. They fit in from the start. Good for them!
But then there are those who don’t fit in easily, if at all. They bounce back rather than join in. They cause problems for themselves and others. They become the subject of long conversations between various adults, the central theme of which is “What can we do about ______?”
The answer to that question is clear, albeit rarely stated plainly and emphatically: love them. But there’s a catch: they’re not every minute of every day all that easy to love. Nonetheless, it is love, wise love, smart love, persistent and unremitting love that they need, first and foremost. More than anything else, these kids need someone to detect the beginnings of what’s positive in their oddball, offbeat, exasperating, or disruptive ways.
For love to do its transformative work-and nothing is more transformative of humankind than love-it must not be blind. It must see clearly and be brave. Through the eyes of this love, you see without illusion the child who stands before you, the child you actually have, as opposed to the child you always wanted or wished you had, and you love that child, the messy child, the child who - doesn’t win the prizes or get the lead role, the child who -doesn’t get top grades and who isn’t necessarily headed for an Ivy League school, the child who can’t play the instrument you wanted her to play, who can’t throw the fastball you wanted him to throw, nor was ever meant to.
As you come home at the end of the day and your child runs to meet you, it is important before all else that you see not the perfected version of that child or the version you might like to behold, but the actual child, the ragtag child who’s reaching out to you, the child who needs more than anything to be known and loved for who she or he truly is.
If you give that child your love, do you know what a difference you will make? Only all the difference in the world! You will become a miracle maker.
More than anything else, it is love that separates those who thrive in life from those who do not. Love is the main ingredient of the recipe that makes for happy adults. So revel in your love for your child. Enjoy your child. Spend as much time together as you can. Have fun with each other. Work problems out, whatever they might be, knowing that in the long run love will carry the day. This can be difficult, but if you commit yourself to doing it, you will be carrying out the most important and rewarding work in the world. It is work few people will notice, no one will grade you on, and no one will pay you to do. Indeed, your career may suffer if you give loving your child the time it deserves. You may not make CEO or first violin or top billing. But you will be doing the greatest thing a parent can do, which is to give your child the best start in life he or she can get. And on your deathbed, the place where perspective sharpens, you’ll rejoice inside that you gave all the love you could to the ones who needed it from you the most-your children.
This is in no way to say that if your child is struggling or if your child gets into major trouble, it’s your fault because you haven’t loved him enough or loved him right. Not at all. Some children will struggle no matter what. They are born with such problems that no one is able to make them all better. But to give them their best shot, rely on love above all else-love adeptly and creatively applied, love consistently and abidingly offered, love wisely and enthusiastically held out and always felt, even when you’re sad, angry, disappointed, or hopeless. Such love is muscular and magical. It stares adversity straight in the eye and never once blinks. It prevails.
As we said above, it is easy to love many kids, but it is not easy to love all of them. Those who have what we call ADD can be dishearteningly difficult to love at times, but these are the kids who need your love the most, because they get it elsewhere the least.
Even though love is the best “treatment” we’ve got for just about anything, there are several reasons that love -doesn’t get more mention from doctors and other experts as a treatment for ADD (or any other condition, for that matter). First, it’s hard to define what love is, and it is therefore difficult to prescribe. Second, it is difficult to measure the results of applying it. And third, perhaps most important, love is not a quick fix. Most treatments that get studied scientifically in a prospective, -double—blind, randomized trial produce results fairly rapidly, even within hours in the case of some medications, or within months or at most a year or two. Love - doesn’t. Love is slow. Love often seems to be getting nowhere. It can take decades before you see the payoff for all those years of loving. The scientific study would have deemed your efforts useless long before you got to see the positive results.
And so experts recommend various complicated fix—it plans, rife with charts, scripts, and the latest new thing, which parents read and study and try to implement, all the while with a sinking feeling in their gut because they know this latest plan won’t do much. They do their best to put it into action, because they need to try something, and yet they know it’s missing an essential element.
That essential element is the total child. Many of our scientifically established treatments are so directed at fixing shortcomings that the talents, charms, and core self of the child get ignored. What’s missing is the positive essence of the child. These treatment plans are ineffective-and grim-because they are not fueled with the positive vision of what a great kid is in the making. It’s disheartening to set up all these complicated interventions and carry out all these
laborious treatment plans because they so miss the point of childhood: a time to explore and dream, a time to get into and out of mischief and funny places, a time when everything is possible and impossible all at once, a time to be king or queen of all the fields and skies and seas, a time when what matters so very much to grown— ups really -doesn’t matter so very much at all. If you had that time once in your life, that time called childhood, your capacity to dream and feast upon very little never dies.
Rather than setting out to preserve and protect childhood, rather than setting out to develop and celebrate the child’s unique and individual strengths, these well—meaning treatment plans often drive along on square adult wheels, pedantically trying to turn lists, reminders, incentives, consequences, and the achievement of quarterly numbers into the stuff a child can grow on.
These plans are driven not by a vision of bringing out the best in each child but by a fear that a child will fail in life if he - doesn’t learn to shape up and do things right, now and on schedule. So all efforts turn toward standardization, normalization, testing, and assessing. The more a child falls behind, the more he gets “help” to do better, which means to become more like the kids who aren’t falling behind. No one stops to think that maybe what works for the other kids just -doesn’t work for this kid. No one stops to think that maybe the kid who is falling behind has talents that could come out if he were dealt with in a different way.
It is time for that to change. It is time for us to acknowledge that every child has gifts. It is time for us, the adults who care for children, to make it our business to discover and unwrap those gifts, no matter how difficult or frustrating doing that might be. It is time for us to develop child—rearing practices and school curricula that bring out the best in every child, knowing that every child has a best. This is a noble goal, a reachable goal, and one far superior to the mediocre, joyless, conformist, fear—driven goals of many educational and child—rearing plans in the United States today.
I went to high school with a kid who got mostly Cs and Ds and sometimes Fs. It took him five years to complete the four—year curriculum. He -couldn’t do math, he -couldn’t do foreign languages, he -couldn’t spell. Socially, he compensated by making jokes about how stupid he was. Finally he graduated by the skin of his teeth.
His name is John Irving. He is now acclaimed as one of the world’s great novelists. But when he graduated from high school, he thought he was stupid. Others might have judged him a loser, a young man on his way to nowhere.
Instead, he unwrapped his considerable gifts. How? You’d have to ask him to be sure, but from all that I have learned about his life, it was because of love. His two parents never lost faith in him. They always believed in him. And rather than fussing too much over his poor grades and other shortcomings, they put their energy into supporting his strengths, one of which was wrestling. I can still see his mother sitting in the front row at wrestling meets, cheering like a rabid fan not only for John but also for all the other members of the team, match after match.
And the wrestling coach, a legend in New England wrestling by the name of Ted Seabrooke, took John under his wing and gave him a place where he could achieve mastery, and the confidence and optimism that that engenders. Irving is now himself legendary not only for his imaginative powers but also for his work ethic as a writer. I wonder how much of that came from those years with Seabrooke. As a teen with an undiagnosed learning disability (he later found that he had dyslexia), John discovered that hard work does pay off, especially if you apply it in an area of your strengths, which wrestling was at that time for him.
The combination of identifying strengths, creating a chance to succeed, and fueling the process with optimism and excitement leads to success and happiness most of the time. But it starts with love. Just think of John’s mom sitting there mat-side, match after match after match, giving her son who was struggling academically a chance to feel joy and pride in what he could do well.
You can depend upon it: nothing works better than love. Our most common advice to parents who are having ongoing trouble with a difficult child is “Hang in there. Keep loving him. Keep showing up. Keep trying. Keep setting limits, offering new ideas, making deals, wrestling with one catastrophe after another. Just don’t give up. Don’t write him off. One day all your love and all your efforts-and his-will pay off.” Sometimes these parents get annoyed with us for giving this advice. They already know that, they say, and they want something more esoteric, something more elaborate, something new that will work. And I do have various new interventions to offer. But none of them is worth a nickel without love.
I’ve been in this business long enough-I started treating patients in 1978-to know that I’m right. I’ve seen teens go to jail but, because one parent hung in there and kept loving them, find great careers for themselves years later. I’ve seen children with ADD get tossed out of school after school, their parents told each time that this child is the “worst” (the actual word used) the school has ever seen, only at age -twenty—five to own a million—dollar business and be as happy as can be. I’ve seen adolescents with ADD get so depressed that they wanted to commit suicide and even try it, only years later to be helping me counsel other adolescents on how much better life can get. I’ve seen girls curl up on the floor of my office crying, pounding their heads, saying how stupid they are and how life sucks and how they wish they were dead, only years later to be sitting in a chair in that same office telling me about their medical school acceptance, their upcoming marriage, or their having started their own business. I’ve seen boys spend most of their teens smoking pot and doing very little else, only in their twenties to find the right job and the right girl and turn life into a spectacular success.
From the Hardcover edition.