jasonbwatson

October 15, 2015

Pretty Simple, Really

Joy Pullman, in the October 3, 2015 issue of WORLD, wrote a brief article entitled “A real head start.” In the article she addressed the fact that preschool and the federal Head Start program are not all that effective in equipping children for academic success. In fact, she quoted a study which found that watching Sesame Street was just as beneficial as Head Start on a child’s academic success. As much as you have to admire the long-running success of Big Bird and his buddies there is no way to justify the $8 billion annual price tag for Head Start if that is really all the difference it makes.

Pullman also referenced the efforts underway by the group Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), which is running ads in New Hampshire and Iowa in an effort to get presidential candidates to lend their support to the creation of government programs for children from birth to age 4. The organizations web site says that its purpose is “to mobilize all Americans in a commitment that cannot wait–investing in early childhood now.” If you follow the link to the “Secure Early Education” page you will read this:

Save the Children Action Network knows that investing in early childhood education is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty. These investments lay the foundation for success in school, career and life. The type of environment and the quality of interaction to which children are exposed in the first five years of life greatly influence the outcomes of their adult lives.

Education may very well be one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty but it certainly is not the most effective way. And educating children in preschools and government programs for the first four years of their lives is not the answer. The Save the Children Action Network page lists the following under the headline “The Problem”: “From 2010 to 2012, more than 4 million 3-and 4-year-olds were not attending preschool, representing more than half (54%) of all children in that age group.” I have no reason to think those numbers are not accurate but I have every reason to believe that is not the problem. Nor is the goal of “high-quality early childhood education” the solution. The solution, according to the Save the Children Action Network is this: “A comprehensive, national early childhood education program would add $2 trillion to the annual GDP within a generation, according to the Brookings Institution. Evidence-based, high-quality early childhood education programs not only prepare children for school but also empower parents to influence their child’s academic success.”

It is interesting to me that the web site includes this nod to parents, since the effort to create a national early childhood education program is really an effort to take children away from their parents at an even earlier age in order to submit them to the influence of the state. It is not difficult to imagine how long it would take before such a program would become mandatory once it was created. Of course an incredibly important part of the problem–which SCAN and other organizations do not want to acknowledge–is the breakdown of the family. Even before the legalization of homosexual marriage we had an epidemic of broken families in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children born out of wedlock in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which I can find numbers, was nearly 1.6 million, meaning that 40.6% of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. According to the ChildTrends Data Bank, only 64% of children in the U.S. lived with two married parents. (Notice that does not say those were necessarily the child’s biological parents, so this figure includes adoptions as well as blended families). This is huge because, also according to ChildTrends, “Single-parent families tend to have much lower incomes than do two-parent families, while cohabiting families fall in-between.” The site also states the following:

Both mothers and fathers play important roles in the growth and development of children. The number and the type of parents (e.g., biological, step) in the household, as well as the relationship between the parents, are consistently linked to a child’s well-being. (Nationally representative data on adoptive families are relatively new, and warrant a separate treatment.)

Among young children, for example, those living with no biological parents, or in single-parent households, are less likely than children with two biological parents to exhibit behavioral self-control, and more likely to be exposed to high levels of aggravated parenting, than are children living with two biological parents. Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.

Among children in two-parent families, those living with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage tend to do better on a host of outcomes than those living in step-parent families. Outcomes for children in step-parent families are in many cases similar to those for children growing up in single-parent families. Children whose parents are divorced also have lower academic performance, social achievement, and psychological adjustment than children with married parents.

Given this data, combined with that shared above about the effectiveness of Sesame Street equaling that of Head Start, it would seem that SCAN would be advocating for marriage-based two-parent families rather than more government early-education initiatives. I suspect we will not see SCAN take that route, though, or many other organizations or politicians since that would mean having to address the self-centered focus so prevalent in our culture, having to address the overthrow of traditional marriage and gender roles, the abandonment of commitment in marriage, saving sex for marriage and just about everything else that has been thrown out with the embrace of the attitude so prevalent in our nation today. When the focus is on what works for me right now the focus is solely on self; children are considered very little, if at all.

Pullman’s article highlights another very interesting finding by researchers: what is “most effective for tots’ long-term success is having a married biological mother and father. Other legs up include the number of books in a child’s home and eating meals together as a family.” It seems to me it’s pretty simple, really. Forget Head Start (and Sesame Street). If we want to give children a better chance to succeed, if we want to grow the annual GDP, and if we want to strengthen our nation, what we need to do is get back to the basics–the basic family unit. Father, mother, children. Marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage commitments, not no-fault divorces. Parents who actually read to and with their children, families that sit down at the table and eat together at least once a day–without the television on and without cell phones in everyone’s hands. That sounds like a real commitment that cannot wait. Let’s mobilize Americans to pursue that goal!

January 22, 2015

The Weakest Link

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address to Congress and the nation. As presidents (almost always) do, Obama proclaimed the state of our union to be strong. However, his address, regardless of whatever else you may think of it, also proved a prime example of the proverb about the weakest link: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, it says. If that is true–and I think we have all seen ample evidence in our lives that it is–then the state of our union is actually quite fragile. Let me tell you why.

President Obama, as he has done repeatedly throughout his administration, championed the rights of all “people groups” in his SOTU address. The “last pillar of our leadership,” Obama said, is “the example of our values.” What do those values include, according to Mr. Obama? Respecting human dignity, speaking out against “deplporable anti-Semitism,” “rejecting offensive stereotypes of Muslims,” defending free speech and advocating for political prisoners. It also includes “comdemn[ing] the persecution of women or religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” And why do we do these things? “We do these things not only because they are the right thing to do but because, ultimately, they make us safer.”

Really? In many cases, I would say that’s true, but there is a glaring exception to Mr. Obama’s position.

He went on to state that, “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice.” For that reason, he said, it is time to shut down the terrorist prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Keep in mind, of course, that the detainees at Gitmo are suspected or convicted terrorists.

Several paragraphs later, President Obama stated that Americans “live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper.” Then, a few lines later, “[A] better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”

What we do not see in any of this rhetoric is any acknowledgement of the unborn. We respect human dignity, the president said, but apparently not the dignity of the unborn. We deplore anti-Semitism and reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims (as we should), but evidently we neither deplore nor reject the notion that a woman has the right to kill an unborn child in her womb. We condemn the persecution of women or religious minorities or homosexuals, but we allow and even champion the “right” of a woman to dispose of another human being if that human being’s birth or temporary occupation of a uterus is inconvenient. We are committed to justice, yet somehow that means closing a prison that houses dangerous terrorists while permitting the murder of unborn children. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters, but evidently only after they have left the womb; until then, they’re out of luck. Our “basic decency” does not include defending the right to life.

The President’s only mention of abortion was when he said this: “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely, we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows….” Of course we can agree that is a good thing! Yet the fact that those numbers are at all-time lows (if they are; I have not checked the numbers) does not, by any means, negate or excuse the fact that we still murder a million unborn children every year. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s July 2014 fact sheet on abortion, “Half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion” and “Twenty-one percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion.” This is not okay!

Just a few paragraphs from the end of his address, President Obama said, “I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your own life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances, as committed as we are to working on behalf of our own kids.” In fact, Mr. Obama is not committed to improving the life chances of children at all. He may be committed to improving the chances they have in life, and he may desire to see today’s children have wonderful opportunities during their lives, but his commitment does not begin until the child leaves the womb.

As long as abortion is legal in the United States–as long as we are willing to, as a nation, defend and embrace the “right” of a woman to kill her unborn child–the state of our union will never truly be strong. When we refuse to defend the sanctity of life, we undermine everything else we claim to stand for. The United States’ position on abortion is truly its weakest link.

August 29, 2014

Live It Out

Ravi Zacharias is, in my opinion, one of the wisest and most articulate Christian apologists on the planet. Rarely do I listen to him speak or read something that he wrote without being struck by something I want to be sure to remember and to try to apply in my own life.

Today, as I was flipping through some index cards on which I have written quotes that I find meaningful and worth reflecting on from time to time I was struck by the relationship between two consecutive cards in the stack. Maybe they have always been next to each other and it never struck me, or maybe they just ended up that way today, because some of the cards had come out of the clip in which I keep them and got rearranged. But I think that these two thoughts complement each other so well, and are such poignant reminders for all of us (and those of us who work with children specifically) that I want to share them with you.

The first is a quote from Ravi Zacharias. He says, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.” The implications of that one sentence could fill pages–could actually probably fill books. The Bible talks clearly in so many passages about the importance of living out our faith. Professed belief is questionable if it does not impact the way in which the one making the profession lives his or her life. James, of course, says that believing in God is all well and good but is, for all intents and purposes, worthless in and of itself because even the demons believe. There must also be action, an out-flowing of the change that takes place inside.

I have heard on several occasions–and I am sure you have too–a political candidate say, “My faith will not interfere with my job,” or something along those lines. While I can perhaps appreciate the point the candidate is trying to make, particularly vis-a-vis the “keep religion out of the public sphere” atmosphere that dominates America today, I always find myself thinking in response, “Then it must not be much of a faith.” If someone can profess a religious faith and also profess that he or she can execute the duties of a political office without that faith having an influence on him or her then that faith is either completely meaningless or completely compartmentalized. (Actually, that’s redundant, isn’t it? A completely compartmentalized faith would be completely meaningless…) There are few positions that involve the influence and the potential impact of a political office; if one’s faith is not influential there, where would it be influential?

To the point that Zacharias is making, many people are completely turned off by those who profess the gospel message and therefore never even give the message itself a chance. When one who professes something lives in a manner completely inconsistent with that which is being confessed such a rejection is hardly surprising. This amounts to little more than “do as I say, not as I do,” and I think we all know how effective that is(n’t).

The index card right behind the one with the quote from Ravi Zacharias was one with this quote from Alison Thomas: “The most persuasive apologetic we can offer our children is not a series of carefully constructed verbal arguments, but a life beautifully lived close beside them.”

These two quotes are so complementary because they have the same idea at their roots. Zacharias’ point is that the gospel has the answers, but when those of us who claim it turn seekers off by the way we live our lives they will never give the gospel a chance. Thomas’ point is that coming up with the grandest instructions, arguments and rules in the world will matter little, if at all, if others–and in this case, children specifically–do not see the gospel demonstrated every day in our lives.

Neither Zacharias nor Thomas is suggesting we must be perfect–because none of us can. We will all stumble, make mistakes and “blow it” from time to time. That’s because we’re human. The frequency with which we do that should diminish over time as we grow in our relationship with the Lord but it will still happen. The question is, what do we do when that happens? Do we acknowledge it and repent? Do we apologize to those we may have hurt in the process? Or do we try to cover it up or excuse it away?

The inverse of Zacharias’ point is equally true, and is the point at which Thomas is getting. If we live a beautiful life alongside our children, one in which they see us growing, learning, struggling, messing up and handling it well, they will learn from us. They will ask questions. They will model what they have seen. The probability is high that they will embrace the faith themselves. Our words can be powerful teachers and testimonies, but only if the reinforce and echo what our actions are already teaching.

I suspect that if I were God I would not have chosen to entrust my message of love, redemption and forgiveness to the human race. Even if I had loved humans enough to offer them that, I would probably have done it in a manner that eliminated the possibility that humans could, through their own bone-headedness, become an obstacle to other humans wanting to receive or even hear my message. God, in His sovereignty, chose to give us mortals that responsibility…and what a responsibility it is! If we are going to profess a faith in Him, we better be sure to live it out.

March 27, 2014

Corrective Lenses

In case you have not heard, World Vision has announced that it is reversing its decision on hiring homosexuals in same-sex marriages. Apparently the decision was made at a World Vision board meeting held within a few hours of my last post (a few hours before I posted, I might add–I am not suggesting any correlation between the two events!) This decision marks a quick turnaround by the parachurch ministry since the announcement that it would allow such hirings came just two days earlier.

WORLD Magazine news editor Jamie Dean broke the story of the reversal on Wednesday afternoon, saying that Columbia Theological Seminary president Stephen Hayner, who is a World Vision board member, responded to an e-mail inquiry from WORLD with this statement: “The Board of World Vision is just concluding a meeting and will be releasing a statement shortly reversing the decision that was made. It was never the intention of the Board to undermine our firm commitment to the authority of the Scripture.”

Approximately an hour and a half later Dean posted an update on the story, including the World Vision statement. The statement, issued over the names of World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns and World Vision U.S. board chairman Jim Beré, begins this way:

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our national employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

It is encouraging to see that the board acted so quickly to reverse this decision and to acknowledge that a mistake was made. At the same time, it still troubles me that a board of such intelligent individuals would have made the decision in first place, somehow believing that the decision was not undermining Scripture.

The statement continues, “We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority. We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent.” Therein lies the problem. I repeat, how could this board of intelligent and accomplished individuals honestly believe that its decision was not a “reversal of a strong commitment to Biblical authority”? When a decision is made to allow accept something that the Bible clearly and unequivocally states is wrong there is no explanation for it other than a reversal.

“We are asking for your continued support. We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead,” the statement says. This, too, is encouraging, but begs yet another question; specifically, why was this “wise counsel” not sought before the decision was made? If somehow (and, in my opinion, inexplicably) the World Vision board truly was not sure how the announcement of the policy change would go over among the evangelical community why would they not have sought this insight and counsel before announcing their decision? The furor and backlash that poured forth in the few days between the announcement of the decision and its reversal could have been avoided completely. Yes, it is good to learn from one’s mistakes, but it is also good to avoid mistakes when common sense or, at the very least, a minimum amount of thoughtful reasoning would have prevented it in the first place. Stearns acknowledged as much according to a report from Religion News Service, stating, “We hadn’t vetted this issue with people who could’ve given us really valuable input at the beginning. In retrospect, I can see why this was so controversial for many of our supporters and partners around the country. If I could have a do over, it would’ve been that I would’ve done more consultation with Christian leaders.”

No doubt the possibility that contributions to World Vision would see a sudden drop was at least part of the reason why this decision was so quickly reversed. The Assemblies of God had already encouraged its members to consider dropping their support of World Vision and no doubt many other individuals and churches had or would have soon made similar recommendations. Ryan Reed tweeted on Wednesday, “My wife works for WV. In today’s staff meeting Stearns announced that so far 2,000 kids dropped.” If true, that figure would have equated a drop in World Vision donations of $840,000 since the monthly child sponsorships are $35. That was within two days of the announcement; no doubt the decrease would have ended up being considerably greater.

Richard Stearns did acknowledge in talking to reporters that the initial decision reflected poor judgement; “We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking them to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.” Still, Stearns also stated, “What we found was we created more division instead of more unity, and that was not the intent of the board or myself.” If that is an attempt to explain their poor judgment it really does not help since, I say again, it confounds understanding to imagine the World Vision board honestly believing that their decision would increase unity. In light of these events I believe that the World Vision U.S. board needs to seriously evaluate Stearns and itself in order to figure out how such an egregious lapse of responsibility could have happened in the first place; there may well need to be some changes made in order to prevent it happening again.

Russell Moore tweeted soon after the announcement, “World Vision has done the right thing. Now, let’s all work for a holistic gospel presence, addressing both temporal and eternal needs.” I think he speaks for many when he states that World Vision did the right thing. Jim Daly of Focus on the Family also released a statement. It says, in part, “I believe the Board of World Vision had the best of intentions when they cited a desire for ‘unity’ in making their original decision. But however well-intentioned, nothing is more important than adherence and faithfulness to the clear teachings of Christ. No matter how hard culture tugs, we cannot relinquish God’s truth.” Frankly, Daly gives the WV board more credit than I do; they may have had the best intentions in pursuing unity in some sense but it certainly was not, in my mind, a unity around biblical truth–and that should be preeminent.

Daly goes on to say that World Vision ought not suffer from this blunder. “I pray that Christians will now respond likewise with a spirit of grace and humility. World Vision does not deserve to be harmed by this incident. The security and fate of too many children are at stake to hold a grudge and punish them by withholding support.” He’s right about the children who are served by World Vision. They had no say in the decision of the World Vision board and they will be the ones who suffer if the World Vision contributions take a hit–and they should not be victims of poor decision making by the board. At the same time, there are many ways to help disadvantaged children around the world and sponsorship through World Vision is but one such way. My belief is that it would only be prudent for Christians who desire to help children in poverty to evaluate their options are to take the position and history of the organization into consideration when deciding where and how to give–and that consideration needs to include this decision and reversal by World Vision.

Of course the outcry that resulted after Monday’s announcement will now reverberate from the other side of the spectrum as World Vision will receive condemnation from those on the political and evangelical left who believe that support for the ministry should now be questioned because they have reversed their decision to embrace those in homosexual marriages. Read through the comments on the story of the reversal on the NPR web site and you will find plenty of comments like this one: “‘World Vision has a yearly operating budget of about $1 billion.’ According to Charity Navigator, $174 million comes from government grants. We should put a stop to that nonsense. … Why should any government be supporting organizations that discriminate?” It’s a no-win situation for World Vision–but one of their own making.

Bottom line, I am thrilled that World Vision has acted swiftly to reverse their decision. They recognized that their vision was blurred and they applied the corrective lenses of Scripture. I am still troubled by the poor judgment that the initial decision reflects and I would personally think carefully and give prayerful consideration to supporting World Vision financially. But I would absolutely continue to find ways to support children in need around the world if that was what I felt the Lord leading me to do.

October 4, 2013

True Education

My plan is to spend the next several entries addressing education. For starters I would like to reflect on an article R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote for the May 2013 issue of Tabletalk entitled “The School of Christ.”

Sproul correctly points out that “it is not hard to complain about the government’s schools,” and that just about everyone seems to have something to complain about–atheists complain about prayers, Christians complain about sex education and everyone complains about graduation rates and standardized test scores. From there, though, Sproul makes an assertion that many will undoubtedly find startling: he says that American schools “are not actually designed to train up scholars…their goal is neither intellectual nor moral giants. Rather, they function to prepare men and women to work.” He continues, “The entire system looks at children as if they were widgets, entering the education factory as toddlers and coming out the other side when they are grown.”

Sproul takes issue with this approach and, whether or not you agree that schools operate this way, I suspect you would, too. “This is not how God designed the rearing of children,” Sproul writes. “To be sure, our children must learn things, but they are not so much widgets in a factory as they are plants around our tables (Psalm 128). They are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.”

One obvious problem with the widget approach is that widgets are produced best and most efficiently when there is a system that treats every widget exactly the same, replicating the same process hundreds or thousands of times a day, day after day, month after month. Once in a while an improvement or adjustment comes along, and the improvement or adjustment is input into the system, calibrations are altered, and every widget thereafter has the exact same improvement or adjustment. The workers have no personal relationship with or attachment to the individual widgets; their sole concern is that the machinery works properly, the procedures are followed precisely, and the product output is maintained if not increased. Children cannot be treated this way. Well, they can be, actually, but treating children this way will have the exact opposite effect as treating widgets this way. Rather than increasing productivity, efficiency and consistency this approach will hinder learning, frustrate children and result in little if any learning.

Another problem with this approach though, and the one that Sproul dwells on, is that the Bible addresses the responsibility of raising and teaching children by using “natural and organic terms, rather than mechanical or industrial terms.” In other words, education, properly done, cannot be confined to the hours between the first and last bell of the school day like manufacturing can be restricted to the time between the first and last bell of the work day. Referencing Moses and Old Testament instruction for teaching children Sproul writes that parents are to provide their children with “an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.”

The greatest (read biggest) part of that responsibility for parents to recognize and accept that the education of their children is their responsibility. The education of children is not the job of the state, is not the job of the pastor, youth pastor or Sunday school teacher, and is not even the job of the tutor or teacher. Minus the state, each of those individuals can have a role and an influence on the education of children, but the responsibility is ultimately and preeminently on parents. As an educator I am obviously not opposed to schools or advocating that every parent homeschool their children (though homeschooling is a terrific option for many families). What I am advocating is the point that Sproul is making–that parents must see the school and the church the same way they see the doctor and the coach. The school and the church are important pieces of the education of children and they each play specific and necessary roles. So too does the doctor and the coach. These individuals have expertise (or, in the case of the coach, a willingness even if the expertise is lacking) that can benefit children when they are sick or are engaging in athletic activity. But those roles are finite and restricted. Parents, on the other hand, have a never-ending role.

Regarding the command in the Shema to talk to their children about the things of God all the time, Sproul writes, “in order to do this, of course, we who are parents first must be thinking about the things of God all the time. Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are particularly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while he is beside the point the rest of our days.”

This is true education. Dictionary.com defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” As significant a chunk of the early lives of children as the 15,000 hours they will spend in school may be, it is not sufficient by itself to accomplish that task, regardless of how terrific the school may be. Many of the next few entries will address the formal education that takes place in institutions of learning, but I felt it important to state that education is, first and foremost, the responsibility of parents. It is an incredible responsibility but it is also a tremendous privilege. Think about it…God Himself knits together little lives and then hands them to human beings and entrusts them with the power of molding and shaping that life, of educating that human being. Between you and me, if I were God I think I would deliver the little ones pre-programmed. But I am not God (for which we can all be grateful!), and He has chosen to give the task of educating children to the parents. Do not take that role lightly, do not abandon it to others. Seize it!

August 30, 2013

A parent, not a pill

Given how common the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are these days, and the seeming haste with which physicians will prescribe stimulants to treat the disorders, you may find it interesting, as I did, that the Wall Street Journal reported in July that those prescriptions do not improve the academic performance of the children who take them. In fact, they may even have the opposite effect.

According to the article, “Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called ‘cognitive enhancers’ because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term. Similar drugs were given to World War II soldiers to improve their ability to stay alert while scanning radars for enemy aircraft.”

The study the WSJ was reporting on, however, indicates that over the long run there is really no significant difference in achievement scores, grade point averages or being retained in school among students who take the ADHD medication and the students who do not.

That would be disappointing and even troubling all by itself, but the study went further. Not only do students on the medication not perform any better, but “boys who took ADHD drugs actually performed worse in school than those with a similar number of symptoms who didn’t.” A separate report, a working paper published on the web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, indicates that girls on the medication report suffering from more emotional problems than girls who do not use the drugs.

Given the number of students taking these medications–2.7 million of them as of 2007–this is serious news. While the prescriptions have been flowing in increasing numbers there have been other voices arguing that the medical community really has no idea what the long term effect of ADHD medication will be on the children who take it. And the belief that these medications help improve focus and academic performance has led to them being popular among students taking important tests or trying to improve their grades–even students who do not have a prescription for them. There is such a demand for these drugs on the “black market” that estimates are that as much as 15% to 20% of all ADHD medication winds up in the hands of someone without a prescription for it.

The WSJ article also points out that what ADHD medications do seem to do effectively is improve classroom behavior. Students on the medication are more likely to sit still and less likely to interrupt the teacher than those students diagnosed with ADHD who do not take the drugs. More specifically, “The medicine may help with focus, but it doesn’t help with deciding what to focus on.” In other words, the ADHD medications are effectively behavioral modification drugs.

I can remember attending an educators’ conference years ago, when ADD diagnoses were just coming into vogue, at which the head of a large educators’ organization suggested that ADD might be more accurately spelled BRAT. The comment received the chuckle the speaker was going for, but in the years since then the diagnosis became so common, and the medication so prevalent, that there was surely a growing number of people who believed that the “disorder” is real and the treatment effective.

I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are legitimate cases of chemical imbalances and other challenges that make focusing and remembering difficult, and perhaps there are times when treatment with medication is warranted. At the same time, I can say with just as much conviction that I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are times when children who were unsuccessful on the medication become much more successful when they are in environments with structure and discipline, when they are held accountable, and when they have adults who encourage them in their work.

I can recall another professional conference at which I heard an expert in the field of working with troubled youth say that while there may be a case for medication in some instances, the best treatment for children who seem incapable of focusing or applying themselves appropriately is “consistent, loving discipline over time.” I would have to echo that with a hearty amen, since that is what all children need, regardless of whether they have any diagnosis. Not coincidentally, that is exactly what the Bible prescribes for raising children, too.

I am not a mental health professional, and I am not going to jump on a soap box and say all ADHD medications should be eliminated or all children should be taken off of these drugs. I will say this, though: no physician or parent should ever use drugs just to get a child to behave or sit still. There seems to be significant evidence questioning the merit of using these medications in order to accomplish improved academic performance, and that means physicians and parents alike should think long and hard before putting children on these drugs–especially when there seems to be a link between the medication and emotional problems. If a child has trouble focusing, listening, learning or obeying it may not be a medical problem. It may not take a pill, but it will take a parent.

August 23, 2013

Digital Dementia

I read a report recently of a new ailment that seems to be afflicting young people around the world, though the term originated in South Korea: digital dementia. What is that exactly? Well, according to the South Korean doctors who coined the term, and as reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph, it is “a deterioration in cognitive abilities that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.” (Click here for the article). What causes this deterioration? An overuse of technology like smart phones and gaming devices. The article cites Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, as saying that the overuse of such devices actually “hampers the balanced development of the brain.”

According to the reports out of South Korea more than 18 percent of Koreans between the ages of 10 and 19 are using their phones more than seven hours per day. South Korea is considered to be the most technologically-connected nation in the world, and more than 64% of Korean teenagers have a smart phone, a number that tripled from 2011 to 2013. The overuse of these devices is causing poor development in the right side of the brain, which is where concentration occurs. Doctors speculate that this could lead to the onset of actual dementia in 15% of those impacted.

South Korea is not the only place where technology is overused, of course. The article in The Telegraph references a book entitled Digital Dementia written in 2012 by Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist. As best I can tell from a quick search on Amazon this book is not available in English, so I have not read it and am unlikely to be able to do so in the near future, but the article in The Telegraph reports that Spitzer warns that the damage caused by the overuse of electronic devices is irreversible, and he has called for banning digital media from German classrooms.

I can appreciate the good doctor’s position, but I do not think banning technology is the answer–not in classrooms, at least. Technology is a tool that allows teachers to do some wonderful things in their classrooms–things that were unthinkable even when I was in high school (which was not all that long ago really). I think a bit of caution on the part of parents is wise. I am surely not the only one who has wondered about the wisdom of parents equipping their pre-adolescent children with phones that cost hundreds of dollars, can take crystal clear digital pictures and have instant connectivity to the Internet. There is simply no need. Even worse, though, is when those same parents allow their children to use the device whenever they want, and for as long as they want. Don’t even get me started on cell phone etiquette! Forget digital dementia; maybe we should be on the look out for the complete loss of muscles in every part of the body but the thumbs when people are texting each other from fifteen feet away!

So where does the U.S. stand in this coming digital disaster? According to the March 2013 report from the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 78% of U.S. teenagers (ages 12 to 17) have cell phones, with 47% owning smart phones. That means, the report states, that 37% of all U.S. teens have smart phones, up from 23% in 2011–a significant increase, but not nearly the tripling that occurred in South Korea. Yet, 74% of U.S. teens say they access the Internet on cell phones or other mobile devices at least occasionally, and 25% of teens say they are “cell-mostly” users of the Internet–a number significantly higher than the 15% of adults who identify themselves as such. A finding that I found particularly troubling given the predators that are out there is that a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys report being cell-mostly Internet users–and while 71% of teens who access the Internet on a home computer say they do so on a device they share with other family members, that is highly unlikely to be the case with those who use the Internet primarily via cell phone. (If you want to read the entire Teens and Technology 2013 report you can do so here).

So, what is my point? Well, first of all, I think the term “digital dementia” is a bit silly. I think the last thing we need is another label for mental health professionals to slap on teenagers (or adults) who are basically lacking in common sense and self control. At the same time, I think there are legitimate concerns over the amount of time teenagers are spending on digital devices. I would strongly encourage parents to limit both the amount of time their children and teens have access to cell phones and other digital devices and to seriously consider whether or not their children and teens need smart phones or cell phone access to the Internet. My gut instinct is that there are very few times parents will find that their children and teens do need such devices. That said, though, I feel just as strongly that prohibiting the use of cell phones and other tech devices by children and teens is equally unhealthy. We live in a world where technology is ever-present, and that is not going to go away. Effective parenting will involve training and equipping children to exercise self control and discernment in both how to spend money (hundreds of dollars on a phone that is basically a mini computer is seldom justifiable) and how to use technology in a safe, healthy, and God-honoring manner. Parents need to take to heart their God-given responsibility to teach and train their children, and they need to take to heart Psalm 37:30, which in the New Living Translation reads, “The godly offer good counsel; they teach right from wrong.”

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