A knockout essay in the NY Times by Hanif Kureishi about the Value of Distraction got me thinking about how our obsession with diagnosing, regularizing, and “optimizing” kids.

I’m sure treatments for ADHD have helped plenty of kids, and I’m not against medicine. But when the number of children on psych meds is so alarmingly high, I worry we’re getting lost somehow. And for me Kureishi puts his finger on it:

You could say that attention needs to be paid to intuition; that one can learn to attend to the hidden self, and there might be something there worth listening to. If the Ritalin boy prefers obedience to creativity, he may be sacrificing his best interests in a way that might infuriate him later. A flighty mind might be going somewhere.

First, Kureishi is just a great writer. Since his film “My Beautiful Laundrette” I’ve been a fan. (Introducing Daniel Day Lewis to the world was no small accomplishment either, but that’s another story). His essay clarified for me a link between economic instability, growing conformism, and our “factory education” obsession with measurement and performance. Of course we should be giving kids a good education, but are we losing the best stuff by cramming in so many “measurable” milestones?

By the standards of today’s kids, my education was fairly lax. I got through many classes without too much fuss, and wasn’t excited by lots of it. But I had a few teachers who really set me thinking and propelled me into my own interests. And I had the luxury of free time—unscheduled time to waste, make an arts project, doodle in a notebook, make an 8mm film with friends—that I suspect is unimaginable to most of our kids today.

Here’s where his essay just knocked my socks off:

From this point of view — that of drift and dream; of looking out for interest; of following this or that because it seems alive — Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent’s good…

As we as a society become desperate financially, and more regulated and conformist, our ideals of competence become more misleading and cruel, making people feel like losers. There might be more to our distractions than we realized we knew. We might need to be irresponsible. But to follow a distraction requires independence and disobedience; there will be anxiety in not completing something, in looking away, or in not looking where others prefer you to. This may be why most art is either collaborative — the cinema, pop, theater, opera — or is made by individual artists supporting one another in various forms of loose arrangement, where people might find the solidarity and backing they need.

I love the implication that we could revise our “ideals of competence” to be broader, and kinder, and to bring in all of the skills that make life livable. It’s great to make a living—I’m quite thankful for that skill! But I feel I’m always working at being able to make a life, almost guilty that enjoyment and meaning is as important as whether I made today’s nutty work deadline. But it is important, and I think if we can’t give that to our children along with marketable skills, we’re not setting them up for much of a future.

In his incredible book “About Alice,” Calvin Trillin pays tribute to his wife of 35 years. It’s full of wonderful, funny, touching reminiscence. He writes that Alice always said “your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.”

I think if we have to have one theory of raising our kids, that might not be a bad one. Maybe the kids need ADHD meds to be their best selves, and maybe they don’t, but let’s really try to focus on them, and what they need.