Whose Attention Deficit Is It, Anyway?

I'm standing at the back door with the dog on his leash, waiting for my son. I spend much of my life waiting for my son. Five times already, I've told Jake to get his shoes and socks on so we can head to the park. Okay — the fifth time, I yelled it. But it's stinking hot, and I'm desperate to get to the swim club, and we have to walk the dog first, and it was the fifth time.

The dog looks up at me, tail wagging. It's what I love most about the dog — he's always ready to go at the drop of a hat. I scratch his ears, listening to Jake sniffle as he searches for his sneakers. I feel rotten that I yelled at him. But I'm angry, too, and righteous: I should not have to tell a 10-year-old five times to put on his shoes.

His older sister isn't like this. She sees the wider picture, shares my sense of urgency, or at least has been trained to. The minute I announced the dog-walk, Marcy jumped up and grabbed her sneaks. Jake was at the computer, though, and seizing a few more chances to destroy alien spaceships overrode any inclination to obey.

“You'd think he would have learned by now,” Marcy says, tapping her foot, mirroring my impatience. She's sucking up, yes, but she's also genuinely puzzled. It isn't in her nature to test the limits the way her brother does.

As for me, I'm examining the weapons I have left in my arsenal if Jake doesn't get a move on. There's the old no-computer-no-Game Boy standby. He's furious when we impose it, but once the initial shock is past, he has no trouble occupying himself with legos, or whittling, or shooting hoops at the long-outgrown Little Tikes basket in the backyard. I could assign him extra chores as punishment, but that would require even more nagging on my part. And speaking of nagging, where the hell is he? “Jake!” I shout.

“I'm here!” he announces, trotting into the kitchen. He has his shoes, but they're in his hands, not on his feet.

Marcy stares at him in disbelief, convinced he has a death wish. “You don't have those on yet?”

“I'm putting them on, aren't I?” But instead of sitting down to do so, Jake balances awkwardly on one foot, swiping at the other with a sneaker, missing, swiping again. This time he connects, and flashes his sister a triumphant smile. As he does, the sneaker falls off. He bends over to pick it up, still standing on his other foot, like some weird Nike crane.

I inhale deeply, yoga-style. “Jake. Just put your foot in the shoe.”

He glances at me. “Huh?”

“Leave the shoe on the floor, why don't you, and slide your foot into it.”

He straightens up, thoughtful. “Slide my foot into — oh!” Grinning, he tries it. “Well, that worked nicely.”

“Other shoe,” I prompt him.

He looks at the remaining sneaker in his hand. And damned if he doesn't stand on one leg — swipe — miss — swipe.

It isn't that he's stupid. And I really don't believe anyone could put this act on, could be so consistently difficult on purpose. It's more that Jake isn't in sync with the rest of us. You have to tell him a dozen times to go upstairs and take his shower. When at last you get him into the shower, he stays there until you pound on the door and shout at him to get out. I picture his mind as one of those Escher prints of stairs that go around and around and up and down, but never arrive anywhere.

This temporal laxness, this chronometrical aphasia, is a classic hallmark of attention deficit disorder. In a New Yorker article on ADD and Ritalin, Malcolm Gladwell politely described the problem as “a profoundly subjective sense of time.” In experiments, add kids are terrible at estimating how long a minute is, or even 15 seconds. The internal clock that rushes me through each day just isn't there for Jake.

He's got plenty of other ADD symptoms, too. He does well on school tests — except on the problems he somehow fails to see, and leaves blank. He blurts out answers before the teacher finishes the question. He begins a million grandiose projects, completes none. He can't control his impulses. He has trouble dealing with transitions.

He's not on Ritalin, though. Not yet, anyway.

At the park, Marcy and I and the dog get out of the car. Jake sits. Just sits. “Get out of the car, Jake,” I remind him, and he does. We set out along the path through the woods. Jake picks up a stick. He picks up another stick. He slashes with the sticks at the tall weeds he passes.

“What is he doing?” Marcy appeals to me, scanning the path ahead and behind for anyone who might be watching. As much as she loves her brother, he is a constant source of chagrin to her. Every aspect of my daughter's life — the way she dresses, the boys she likes, the music she listens to — is dictated by the approval of her peers. She finds Jake's total obliviousness to the opinions of others unfathomable — and also strangely compelling, like a bad traffic accident that you stare at as you drive past.

So do I. “Who knows?” I say, and pick up a stick of my own. I toss it for the dog, who bounds on ahead. Already, Jake is lagging a hundred yards behind us.

Together, Marcy and I wait.

Sometimes, just because we get so tired of waiting, we hide, ducking in among the pine trees beside the path, holding the dog by his collar. But somehow, crouching in pine trees only makes the wait more interminable. And it's not as though Jake ever gets flustered when he looks up and doesn't see us. He just pokes around until he does.

Once, recently, when it was only Jake and me on a dog-walk and I was standing, waiting, watching him amble along the path attacking weeds with his sticks, I called to him: “Who are you battling?” He looked up at me with the strangest expression — a good-natured but intense embarrassment, sort of like my husband's when I catch him eyeing a buxom blonde — and shook his head: No. He wasn't telling. It was as though he knew that he was too old to be fighting imaginary evildoers in the forest — but the fight was going too well to stop just now.

I know moms who think I'm crazy not to get this child on Ritalin. “You'd give him insulin, wouldn't you?” they ask. Yeah, I would. But I don't run out for NyQuil when he has the sniffles, or ply him with Benadryl when he gets poison ivy. My own mom had a perversely puritanical medical ethic, perhaps to balance out my dad's ready recourse to over-the-counter drugs, and I seem to have inherited it.

Besides, I can't get past the thought that giving Jake a prescription medicine without an end in sight (” How long do I have to take it?”) and with no more concrete justification than “It will help you get with the program” would be giving him the message that there's something wrong with him, something profound that needs to be fixed. And I'm not sure there is.

Because it's not Jake who's suffering from whatever ails him; it's the rest of us. This kid is a cork. No matter what I do, what his father does, what the school does, no matter how we all try to change him, he just pops back up, uncowed, unaltered, unhurried, and with such absolute joy — in feeling the dog's soft fur against his cheek, in squinching through mud, swinging from vines, chasing geese. He's “Stop and smell the roses” incarnate — and isn't that what we're all supposed to aim for? My son doesn't have any attention deficit. He's paying attention all the time, to everything around him that is real and concrete. I'm the one who keeps getting distracted, pulled in a hundred different directions by the artificial demands I've caved in to, that Jake tunes out so completely or simply never acknowledges.

I once read an article on ADD in which an expert said the reason the condition is being diagnosed in male children at such a fierce rate is that a couple of generations ago, boys with its symptoms wouldn't be stuck sitting behind desks at school. They'd be out on the farm, helping Dad plow fields and fix the tractor and herd cattle, instead of taking the PSSAs. This made great sense to me. We've crammed all our young men into the same scholastic drawer, and now we fuss when they don't fit comfortably.

Thank God for summer. School will be over in another week, and our household will ratchet the frenzy down a notch. There won't be homework like a storm cloud on every evening's horizon. Jake can take as long as he likes in the shower. I'll be able to think less about Ritalin.

Or maybe I won't. He starts middle school in September, complete with changing teachers and classrooms, and a different schedule every day. The drug does have a siren call. Because we only get one chance at this, right? One shot at doing what's best for him. He's too young to know; my husband and I have to decide for him. If we're wrong, he could end up hating us, blaming us, spending years lying on couches and crying: Why didn't they give me the drug? Then there's the damage we may be doing to him with our perpetual nagging, not to mention the times when, pushed to our limits, we shout at him for what he doesn't seem able to help. How do I balance all of this, weigh it against respecting Jake's “self,” his innate nature? Am I romanticizing that self at the expense of my son's future? Am I doing the right thing?

  I gave up yelling at him for Lent this year. Why yell? It wasn't making any difference. The experiment went pretty well — if nothing else, it made me think before I blew my top — and so on Palm Sunday, in celebration, we all went to the zoo.

Toward the end of our visit, in front of the clouded leopard's cage, Jake turned to me, beside himself with joy, his dark eyes fathomless and convex, like wells that had been filled to brimming, so replete that now the flood of perceptions was just sliding off. For an instant, staring at him, I had the feeling that I could see through his eyes, and it was like seeing through the eyes of another species, a hawk, a cat, a dog with its head out the speeding car's window — the senses overloaded, no conscious thought acting as filter, just the mad, assaulted jumble of being here now. This is the way life looks to Jake all the time, I realized: On dog-walks along the familiar paths through the woods, where I see the sameness, he is seeing the differences, and that's what slows him down.

Then the moment passed. But it left me overcome by the sort of awe I feel for whales and dolphins and other creatures threatened by mankind. For Jake, the world is a precarious place. The grace, I suppose, is that so long as we hold off on Ritalin, he is like the unwary dolphins — too busy reveling in its delights to recognize that.