Photo of a hand-held label makerAny time you mandate that kids must do something, ANYTHING, you’ve automatically created a special category for those kiddos who don’t or won’t – and that’s how labels are born.  Before reading was mandatory for kids, there weren’t any reading disabilities.  Before we descended into this ”short attention span culture” of ours, we didn’t have attention deficit disordered or ADHD kids.  Before it was demanded that all kids develop appropriate social skills, we didn’t have autism.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the difficulties associated with these labels don’t exist. The behaviors have always been there, but cultures change, sometimes dramatically, in the attitudes they take toward them.  So the child who today is labeled as ”autistic” might have been 50 years ago considered eccentric but basically an okay kid.  The child who today is given the ”ADHD” diagnosis, might 50 years ago have just been considered ”wild” or displaying ”all boy” behavior.  And the question we have to ask ourselves is, are kids with labels better off today because they have these labels, or were they better off when they were thought about in other ways?

Now I know this is going to make some parents, and educators, very angry.  Because they will suggest that in the days of yore, many of these kids were given informal labels that were worse than the scientific ones, labels that suggested moral defects (e.g. lazy, crazy, hazy, evil, stupid, lame-brained etc.).  That having a scientific diagnosis is on the whole a more accurate and acceptable way of explaining and dealing with the behaviors at hand.  But I’m not so sure it’s all that cut and dried.  Yes, some kids would have been considered to be morally deficient, but other kids who today are labeled dyslexic or ADHD, would have been deemed to be . . . well, themselves . . . a little off the beaten track perhaps, but still a part of the human condition.  And more importantly, their behaviors would have been accommodated to in informal ways.

I know this sounds like heresy to some, and I don’t deny that having a label to hang something complex onto does have its explanatory advantages.  But in a way, these labels also, to some extent, take kids away from the community of human beings, and puts them in a sort of scientific taxonomic zoo, where they’re more alienated from the human condition.  And the labels sometimes even assume a life of their own, and not always a pleasant life.

Of course it’s very difficult to say these sorts of things in today’s culture because of the way that science and medicine are worshiped as the highest form of reasonableness and authoritativeness. And it’s difficult to put oneself back 50 or 100 years and imagine what it was really like for many of these kids.  Some of these children, one might argue, were lost – and their potentials were never developed, as a result of this lack of scientific understanding.  Perhaps that’s true for some, maybe for a lot of kids.  But other kids would have been let off the hook, so to speak, and would have avoided the drugs, the remediation programs, the parental and educator ”concern,” and other trappings that went along with being considered ”disabled” or ”deficit” in something or other.

This is subtle stuff I’m trying to articulate here, and I don’t deny that I may be stumbling into a hornet’s nest of controversy.  But since this point of view rarely gets articulated, and I am a bit of a contrarian (note: in an authoritarian society, I might well be diagnosed as an ”ideologically dysfunctional person”), I nevertheless put these ideas forward and welcome any opportunity to dialogue with others about them.

Still, I’d like to suggest that we become alert for signs of any new ”disability” looming on the horizon. A parting thought experiment:  if the ability to read music notation should become mandatory in our culture, would we then have a significant problem with children diagnosed with ”dysmusia”?  And how many people (how many of us) would enjoy being in ”musical notation remediation programs” for several hours a day?  Maybe better to just let the whole music thing drop and get on with our lives!

For information about my concerns about the label ADHD, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion (Tarcher/Perigee).

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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