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Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses

by Kay S. Hymowitz
Ivan R. Dee, 2003
Review by Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D. on Nov 19th 2004

Liberation's Children

This book consists of a series of essays published at various times during the past ten years.  Its theme is well stated by the author in her introduction:  "These are strange times to be growing up in America.  A mere twenty years ago, who could have imagined a world where nine-month-olds use computers, ten-year-olds dress like Las Vegas showgirls, and high schoolers pass through halls with armed guards?… The essays in this book try to make sense of all this strangeness, as experts rarely seem to do, and in particular to understand how the postmodern American culture that produced the strangeness addresses the child's search for meaning."   This is an enormous enterprise, of course, and a collection of largely unrelated essays published over the course of a decade may not be the best approach to take.

The introduction is a serious effort to tie the pieces together and is written thoughtfully.  The essays themselves, however, vary in scope and quality, in my view.

The first essay is about day care and provides some thought-provoking descriptions and comments, the wisest and most pithy being, "how we rear our children reflects the kind of society we are."  This essay also introduces a theme which runs throughout the book and which is puzzling to me: experts are silly.  After describing a well-designed and important study on the impact of day care on child development, the author gratuitously comments a few pages later, "Our young mothers- and fathers-to-be face difficult choices, which they need to make with as much wisdom and understanding as possible.   If the experts and the pundits would only let them."

The next essay concerns the travails of getting children accepted into elite kindergartens in Manhattan, and the toll on the lives of parents and children.  This is a well-written article about a trend that does seem silly, and I liked it.  The third piece is an attack on Sesame Street based in part on its initial design, decades ago, as a program for commercial rather than educational television.  The author argues that the program is not all that educational.  She may well be right, though I disagree, but so what?   Kids love this program, and in a book about how society mismanages children, it seems wonderful that there are some features available that children truly enjoy!

The next essay is about aggression in childhood.  It is poorly researched and states, "much as you might read about antisocial behavior in the newspaper, it seldom makes an appearance in the literature of child psychology.  The experts are in denial."   This is an outlandish statement:  there is a truly huge and rapidly growing literature on this topic in child psychology and child and adolescent psychiatry.  The author also uses this chapter for the usual attack on Dr. Spock, saying that she suspects that he "never, ever spent a day with a child" (her italics).   She also attacks Robert Coles, a serious student of childhood.  He described a situation in which he learned something from his young son and says, "My son had become my moral instructor."  She seems to find this ludicrous.  I suspect one could turn the Dr. Spock argument against her:   most people who have spent a lot of time with children have had this experience!  Finally, she concludes the chapter with an attack on Carol Gilligan's view that it is healthy for girls to be assertive and display their anger.  The writer concludes, "Girls who resist doing their homework, who argue with their teachers, who rebel against their mothers, who fight with their friends: this is moral health as envisioned by one of America's premier psychologists."  Well, yes, it is!

The next essay concerns school discipline and is a terrible chapter.  Poor school discipline, according to Hymowitz, is not caused by incapable teachers and administrators, but - surprise! - by children who need special education services!   "Over the past several decades, the number of children classified under the vaguely defined disability categories of 'learning disability' and 'emotional disturbance' has exploded.  Many of these kids are those once just called 'unmanageable'…"  I suppose it is true that these kids were once called unmanageable, and it is a credit to our beleauguered, postmodern society that they are now being identified (with very rigorously defined criteria) and sometimes helped.  Hymowitz goes on to state that "psychobabblers and psychologists" have a bad influence in schools because of "research-based programs" such as violence prevention and anti-bullying workshops, which, she says are "of dubious efficacy".   (If they are research-based, we have a good idea of the efficacy!)  This is an appalling chapter.

In contrast, the material in the next essay, "Tweens: Ten Going on Sixteen", is well crafted and well presented and points to a disturbing trend of young children growing up much too quickly, and it is an excellent essay, but the next one on "what's wrong with the kids" is amorphous and poorly argued.   The subsequent essay on sex is disturbing but one-sided.  The next chapter, on colleges and their curricula, is simply anti-intellectual.  This is followed by a truly wonderful and perceptive essay, "Ecstatic Capitalism's Brave New Work Ethic", which describes the increasing trend for companies to manage their employees' lives - and the willingness of many employees to allow this to happen!   It is an outstanding and thought-provoking essay, as is the final essay in the book, "The End of Herstory", which describes the waning or at least transformation of the feminist movement.  It is a lively, very well written, and thoroughly interesting argument.

What a book!  The author is an amusing and cogent writer, and many of the essays are fun to read.  In some, she achieves brilliance.  In most, she indulges in unwarranted attacks on "experts" and disregards important data.   In many, she indulges in a lot of right-wing rhetoric without substantiation.  It is unfortunate that such a gifted writer has produced such bad essays.

The book which Hymowitz describes in the introduction has yet to be written.  Let's hope it is, for it will be very important.


© 2004 Lloyd A. Wells


Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN