There has been a bit of back and forth recently at Psychology Today concerning the prevalence of ADHD in school-aged children in the U.S. and France. Here at First Thoughts , Collin Garbarino reported the opening piece by Marilyn Wedge and offered his own controversial opinion on the matter. Since then, neuropsychologist David Nowell has offered his own critical response to Wedge.

Marilyn Wedge, the author of Pills Are Not for Preschoolers, argues that fewer French children are diagnosed and medicated for ADHD than their American counterparts (0.5% in France compared to 9% of kids in the U.S.) due in part to differing French and American philosophies of discipline:

Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure. Clear limits, they believe, actually make a child feel happier and safer—something that is congruent with my own experience as both a therapist and a parent. Finally, French parents believe that hearing the word “no” rescues children from the “tyranny of their own desires.” And spanking, when used judiciously, is not considered child abuse in France.

Against Wedge, neuropsychologist David Nowell argues that the actual prevalence of ADHD does not vary significantly among nations, and he chalks up the statistical differences to over-diagnosis and under-diagnosis of the disorder. Nowell does think it legitimate to ask, however, whether there might be “specific supports which protect and buffer the functional impact of ADHD symptoms among individuals in some groups.”

Whether Wedge or Nowell is best vindicated by the empirical data I am not qualified to say. For those of us who hold a hylomorphic anthropology—that man is composed of both body and soul, the soul being the form of the body—taking a radical stance on the nature-versus-nurture debate is rather absurd. Extreme positions detract from the more important question of how discipline might nurture the virtues that perfect our nature. Thankfully on this point there is a common thread of consensus between Nowell and Wedge.

Both writers acknowledge the importance of discipline in training children’s attention, even if Nowell couches the imposing concept in the innocuous category of “specific supports.” It seems a commonsensical proposition—discipline tempers those desires which distract the mind—but with the problematic materialist anthropology that all too often informs the practice of clinical psychology, such common sense cannot always be taken for granted.

The common thread of the “specific support” is worthy of note for it addresses a disorder at the heart of our fallen state. Who, after all, is entirely free of the disorder of the soul which makes the mind vulnerable to the “tyranny of one’s own desires”? It seems we all suffer an attention deficiency, albeit in various degrees. Discipline of the mind is not just for kids, French, American, or otherwise. And if “absolute unmixed attention” is at the heart of prayer, as Simon Weil once posited, then the discipline of our attention affects more than we might guess and is all the more necessary.

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