I recently had a deep discussion about time travel with my insightful, excitable six year old son. Such precious philosophical discussions are common enough in our home and yet somehow still seem semi-rare when one’s allowance rests partially upon remembering to simply regularly flush the toilet. The talk was initiated by a short debate as to whether we should watch the 1980’s classic movie Back to the Future for the umpteenth time (Thanks, satellite TV), or possibly instead just go outside and play. Much of the time travel conversation revolved around a good amount of “What if Dad…?” and “I’d be like…!” statements as to the details my son sees as important to maximizing the science theoretically supporting such futuristic travel modes.
As we went outside to ward off any chance of nature deficit — yes, thanks, I won the debate, another semi-rare occasion — he brought up other classic movies we have watched recently regarding time travel such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the Looney Tunes version of A Christmas Carol. (Please don’t tell my wife we watch such appalling raunchy movies while she’s at work; she thinks I’m responsible.)
Without a phone booth or a collection of friendly caring ghosts to help us travel in time that snowy day, however, we decided to begin building our personal arsenals of snowballs. A war was about to begin. As the first barrage of snowballs were slung at each other, one semi-unlucky shot hit me square in the crook of the neck. The kid’s good; he’s gotta heck of an arm. As the snowball’s icy granular particles slowly melted and then proceeded to drip down my back (conveniently under my shirt) and stimulating memories of snowball fights from decades past, a parenting epiphany hit me.
Parenting Epiphany #1: We are All Kind of Time Travelers
Now, of course — before I begin and you think I might be missing a screw or two — I do realize, beyond time travel conspiracy theories emanating from Area 51, we the general public do not yet possess the science to physically move back in time or take quantum leaps forward. For the time travel conspiracy theorist readers joining this semi-commercial free blog due to an errant search on Google that brought you here, I also realize that it is possible time travelers might be among us and not sharing such technology. They, like Russian spies in New York City I suspect, are sneaky that way. I just wish one would visit me to share a few future insights foretelling how best to invest my 401k or raise my kids.
But as the arctic-infused blunt force blow to my spinal cord helped me realize, we are all slowly traveling physically through or with time. We also are all quite capable of moving forwards and backwards psychologically in time. Meanwhile, some are stuck mentally in time and unable to move forward or release the past. Others are so focused on the future they forget to live in the present. So technically, or theoretically, I propose we are physically, psychologically and/or mentally time traveling. Deep stuff written in semi-rambling prose I know . . . but there is a point to my madness. Just give me a second.
As the first snowball fight of 2015 continued, despite my saturated backside and feelings of discomfort while dodging random frozen projectiles, I reminisced and chuckled about how Marty McFly (aka Calvin Klein) and Doc Brown found the future in 2015 to be slightly weird or novel; such as flying cars or power shoe laces. For you detail-oriented movie trivia folks wanting to correct me, I realize this example is breaking protocol and I am going rogue, mixing Back to the Future I and Back to the Future II trivia facts — please forgive me if I have overstepped my boundaries. But the cars and truck in my driveway still rely heavily upon tires to move. Yes, Marty we do not yet have flying cars in 2015, and much to the dismay of my first grader we actually have to tie our shoes. Also, my daughter’s skateboard does not hover.
These trivia details however made me think how in many time travel movies the future is often hard to predict, intimidating and kind of scary. The actors in these movies are challenged to navigate a strange land where they are just learning the technology, customs and social expectations. Which brings me to Parenting Epiphany #2 . . .
Parenting Epiphany #2: To Some Extent, Time Travel is Like Being a Kid
Similar to children slowly, gradually, and sequentially moving through child development stages, time travelers are challenged every moment by a new world where understanding how to act is an experiment in motion. As a kid, you are thrust constantly into ever-changing environments your brain often leads you to believe you have never seen before. You try to observe, take in all of the sensory, and remember what you have learned; but often it is too much to handle. You try your best to behave appropriately to not bring unwarranted attention or get in trouble, or forever God forbid change the fabric of time, but your imagination, untrained internal dialogue and limited experiences leave you winging it and guessing as to how to think, behave and communicate.
I have a theory that such similarities between time travel and child development might explain why kids daydream so much more than adults and end up with diagnoses such as ADHD. With limited knowledge and lifespan experience they are trying to be hyper focused at warp speed on what is coming next but due to the thought process required they cannot always pay attention to what is being shared at present. This momentary cognitive void is when one’s imagination kicks in by default.
My incredibly creative and highly communicative son only has 78 months under his belt when it comes to time spent on Earth. It should come as no surprise as to why he and many other children are often reflecting on past experiences and simultaneously thinking about what the future holds in store, while juggling the challenges of making good decisions in the present. Life as he, and many other children see it, is forming in real time where the past, present and future often collide.
Child Development is an Experiment in Time Travel
For so many kids, every day is similar to awaking in a new world. Strangely, Mylie Cyrus is considered classic music and yesterday happened so long ago. Last week is but a memory; possibly a dream from the night before. Their favorite place on the couch in front of the TV and their friend’s birthday party this weekend at Trampoline World often seem light years forever away. Going to school and walking through the surreal crowded hallways of students has not necessarily become routine or comfortable. Trying to grasp why this culture expects them to sit attentively and quietly in a small desk void of ergonomic qualities for hours of instruction that are not always of interest, occupies much of the fraction of the 10% of their brains we hope they will someday use. Without the criteria to not necessarily predict what the future for each day has in store, they are basically stumbling in slow motion through a time warp with eyes wide open waiting for the present to happen.
They are, as a child or teen, on an arduous time travel journey to learn what this strange wrinkle in time holds in store and what it means to their future. They are, as real science shows us in child development research, gradually and sequentially trying to get to the next stage of human development. And without a stainless steel early 1980’s model of a snappy space-like designed DeLorian car energized by a flux capacitor, or the ability to make quantum leaps forward in behavior modification, well let’s face it . . . accomplishing meaningful semi-instantaneous progress in stage theory development often seems worlds away.
Being the Guide on The Side, and Not the Sage on the Stage
I share this somewhat silly analogy with you today, because I am always looking for new ways to help myself as well as other parents and adults working with those not so perfect kids. To keep one’s sanity, we often need a new lens to look through in order to grasp a better way to understand, conceptualize and accept the real reasons behind the sometimes annoying and frustrating behaviors associated with child development. As many of you who read my blog know, I have grown tired of the increased trend of early diagnosis of children. I’m all for early interventions to help kids overcome learning deficits and developmental delays, but why — beyond education compliance policy and getting insurance companies to pay for the bill — do we have to label them with a learning disability or permanent mental disorder?
I am sickened by the misguided efforts to pharmaceutically medicate kids because they don’t quite yet think or act like “normal” kids, whatever that might be. As I share in my book Debunking ADHD and often in my talks, I think many kids being diagnosed with behavioral disorders or learning disabilities are only a stage away from “normal.” And the best way to help them move more efficiently through this time travel challenge, should not require being labeled or dangerously drugged. All that 99% of them really need is more time spent walking on this planet with caring adults aside them. They need time travelers who have been there before and can channel the sincere empathy to patiently be that guide on the side.
Why do we expect kids in the prime of their emotional, psychological and physical development (young people waiting for that noodle-like brain to solidify and hormonal imbalance to subside) to display perfect behavior that the majority of us adults cannot muster when forced to sit for hours of instruction? Think about the last workshop, conference, training seminar or even sermon you were required to sit through. Did you fidget in your seat, not pay attention, and feel the need to get up and walk around? Are such commonly witnessed childhood behaviors, which so many today want to label as abnormal behavior, really that different than the behaviors we display during or after an exhausting and exasperating 8-hour work day?
Think about the last time you were placed in a situation that was new to you or an encounter that you did not feel seasoned enough to navigate confidently. Was your decision making and behavior reflective of your best efforts? Or is it possible you needed more time to develop and help from someone who has “been there before” to perfect such social or cognitive abilities? In other words, if we as adults were placed in the same situation and environment our kids are time traveling through minute by minute and day by day, most will display enough behaviors to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD ourselves. That’s why I call it the All Do Have Disorder, a Diagnosis of Normal.
Becoming a More Integral Part of the Childhood Time Travel Experiment
I completely understand the frustrations of parenthood and being an educator. I also realize many others have much greater challenges than what my wife and I encounter at home or in our work in schools or as psychologists. I share such thoughts and insights to help others know they are not alone, and should seek expert advice and help if they fell the need. Being the sage on the adult role model stage is not an easy part to play, especially with Common Core math.
By looking at our efforts as a time travel movie and embracing a more focused supporting actor role in our children’s time travel experiments, however, can help us reframe our mindset. By rewinding or visualizing this movie in slow motion, or moving forward in time using the fast forward button, we can separate or momentarily detach ourselves from the daily demands of parenthood and teaching. We can change the picture from color to black and white, and by taking control as the director of this movie to some extent better direct our kids’ futures.
What I am basically asking you to do is try daily to understand… remember… what it is like to be a kid. Try to recall how little you wanted to focus on what your parents thought was important. Reflect on how torturous you sometimes found school to be. Drift back in your mind, and count how many times you felt bored as a child and dissatisfied with what the day designed by adults required. Can’t remember how you felt or behaved when you were young? If not ask your most honest parent or sibling.
And then think about why or how some in the mental health field and the pharmaceutically funded creators of the DSM can use these common behaviors associated with normal childhood developmental challenges (time travel) as symptoms to diagnose children with mental disorders such as ADHD, depression, and oppositional defiant disorder. Reflect back on your array of time travel movies you have watched and ask if they drugged any of the time travelers to keep them focused or more sedated to remain calm, more attentive and less disruptive. Please think about what it is like to be a kid before you accept a diagnosis from someone suggesting that such commonly displayed behaviors and thought patterns represent a mental disorder and that “legal” mind altering drugs they want you to call “medicine” (which come with a long list of dangerous side effects) are going to help a child’s brain develop.
Anyone recommending such limited mental health approaches and “Drug Therapy” without first spending weeks or months to rule out a mental disorder and numerous differential diagnoses is not thinking or caring enough. They must have missed how a less processed, preservative and pesticide infused diet can help kids. They must not be aware that structuring a child’s day with rules and interesting routines can help as well. If their efforts are not first and foremost focused on seeing if they can help you as a family or parent figure out how best to help your child travel through such times, they are not thinking or caring enough. They either don’t care or don’t understand that it is quite possible the major factors truly affecting your children’s brains (their behavior) are normal childhood challenges influenced by family and social dynamics at play. They either don’t understand the systemic influences on mental health and child development, or time travel does exist and someone in the future has sent back a bunch of minions on an evil mission to drug millions of kids for just acting like kids.
This morning at the bus stop my son was sharing how in the future everything will rely upon fingerprints and “eye scans”, and he thinks his fingerprints are the same as mine. In other words, he will soon in the future gain control of my Iphone6 fingerprint controls. I must go now. Online I found a DeLorian for sale and an app on E-bay that can transform my cell phone into a flux capacitor. If all goes well, before he returns home, in the future I will still be in charge of my programmed parental controls. Until then, enjoy your time travel, and let’s stop drugging kids for acting like kids. They deserve nothing less.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.