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Children With ADHD Have Extra to Learn

Delegate. This is what we read, and hear, that as adults we are to do when it comes to those tasks at which we do not — and do not expect to — excel. When one looks up, or forward to those ahead on the trail of reh-ADD-ilitation, one can tell, as likely as not, that one reason Dr. Whosis does so well, turns out the work, gets the speaking engagements right, and to the airports on time, is that the illustrious Dr. Whosis has delegated.

Dr. Whosis has what are called in show biz “handlers” – people who take care of the details which don’t pertain to the task for which the performer has been hired and which would distract him or her from his or her art. Oh my! What a parallel! “Distract?”

It also helps if Dr. Whosis, or the artist-rock-star, is male, because no one really, even yet, expects daddy to be arranging domestic matters for his absence; but mommy is assumed to do so when she will be absent, and yes, when daddy will be, too, usually, because she’s still the children’s Preferred Provider (AD/HD or no), and besides, it’s in her interest to do it, because if she doesn’t, she’ll be the one home holding the bag.

The other thing that helps is if Dr. Whosis knows how to delegate, because delegating means knowing what pieces are, what ones can be handed off in what order, and to whom. Best of all is a personal assistant. And you know who the best personal assistants are? Mothers. Even mothers with ADD. Explain that.

Actually, it is easier to evaluate the components of a job that isn’t yours; it always was and always will be. No amount of imagination will be able to pretend you into someone else in order to do it yourself for yourself. So toss that fantasy out the widow right now; nope, skip it; hand it over. Trade it if you must, but let’s not have any fake-outs about what you could do being the same as what you can do: the two are nothing alike.

But here is a terrible conundrum: how does the “Delegate” rule apply to children? Mommy is no good at housework, so she hires someone to do it for her; her daughter can’t keep her room picked up, now what? Mommy has somehow got four jars of the same kind of peanut butter no one actually likes or eats, and none that anyone does; you’re out of milk for the third time this month and that’s a mainstay for the pickier eaters and self-avowed vegetarians in the family; both cars are nearly out of gas because Mommy is always late coming home and deludes herself she’ll leave a few minutes early in the morning to fill up Her daughter’s analogous glitches run to four maroon turtlenecks but nothing in blue, and maroon does not go with everything; all her jeans are dirty because right now, every evening, seems too late or inconvenient for laundry and mornings more congenial (if unrealistic); and unfinished homework she’s staying up much too late to complete, when she whiled away the afternoon painting her toenails teal green, getting the dog riled up and not taking it out when it needed to go, claiming homework (quite suddenly) to be her top priority.

Mommy has options she wouldn’t be inclined to offer her daughter. The house cleaner can clean out the refrigerator – does Mom need to learn how to do this as a life skill, or for her self-esteem? It is doubtful; if Mommy can spend the same time doing things she excels at, it probably won’t destroy her sense of competence to not master the refrigerator. Daddy may storm about the cars without gas, or he may take that on as his job (and won’t Mommy be relieved, herself, to climb in the car, and every time she glances at the gas gauge it registers on “Not Empty”?); or, in due time, maybe Mommy will make it a symbol of greater effectiveness and handle it herself.

Meanwhile, her daughter, depending (just like her mother) on others for help in managing these details, the bits and pieces that hold life together, looks a bit ragged around the edges unless there is a clear set of plans or a system of delegates for her. Some people will call this “lazy,” some will say she depends on her parents too much, or that they are holding her back (when it’s the other way round – they have contoured themselves carefully around her continuing requirements for assistance in the executive function department – so don’t let opinion deter you), or that she is suffering from “learned helplessness.”

I have never seen a human being who didn’t want to be self-reliant. In fact, my pet theory about some of the excessive anger in the AD/HD child is that the combined need for more help and the inborn desire for autonomy collide in an internal crisis. In its least covert form it is seen as lashing out, generally at the safest people (parents); sometimes if there are no safe people it goes underground into neurotic or self destructive behavior (subtle or dramatic); and rarely but most noticeably in antisocial behavior of real concern.

The Big Questions are: how much help? May a child delegate? If not, what sort of cruel double standard have we got, to encourage adults to delegate, and deny children the opportunity? And who are the child’s delegates? What do they get to delegate, and what do they need to learn first how to do and then delegate as a regular practice? The idea is not to raise a generation of incompetents about whom we could not say, “AD/HD isn’t a deficit of knowing what to do, but of doing what you know,” as we now can say.

Children do need to learn what to do and how to do it. It will take them longer, probably, because they don’t juggle as many balls at the same time, and if required to, will drop all of them, and some will roll off the edges of the earth and then there will be cause for despair; which should be avoided at all cost.

No, Things Must Be Learned, even if, once learned, handed off to someone else in favor of time spent at pursuits more compelling or necessary for that individual to do (homework comes to mind), or at which one is just plain very very good.

Children with AD/HD, and perhaps more especially girls with AD/HD, have extra to learn: How to Delegate What You Know How To Do But Would Rather Not. This may take a coach, because by the time a girl is old enough to be thinking in these terms, she is old enough for that internal crisis of self-reliance and persisting dependency to be waging a major battle within her spirit. As long as she’s going to need help from someone else, wouldn’t it be swell if most of what they talk about weren’t her mother?

Remember, we make our biggest contributions to the common good when we are doing that which we love to do, and which we are best at (the two are generally the same). No matter how hard one works at it, a born musician is unlikely to contribute much to the world in the way of cabinet-making, or stone masonry. She is better off to leave that to those with a love of, and a talent for, such things, learn the very basics of simple housekeeping, and then practice and play her music at every opportunity. You may tell her teachers I said so. Who am I? Just a person doing the work I most love.

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