Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ein Ganz Unruhiges Kind (A Very Restless Child)

The day Annika was born a very nice pediatrician taught us how to swaddle her the tight way that soothes most babies.  As soon as he left the room, she kicked her feet until they were free from the blanket as if she could not stand being bound any longer.  When we took her home, one of the only ways we could soothe her was to sit and bounce on an exercise ball while holding her.  (We give mega-kudos to our friend Ruth who suggested trying this!!)  From the beginning Annika has had a need to move and not be restricted in an adorably exhausting way, and I’ve been dreading the conversation I had with her teacher yesterday. 

Apparently she is just like her father, as his mother informed me.  Andy was also a very restless child who was easily bored and needed near constant attention until around the age of 10.  One of his teachers once comforted his exhausted mother by saying, “He’ll make a really wonderful adult.”  This does not bode well for my nerves for the next 6 years!

I also need to preface this story by telling you that last week the head of the school had a talk with Andy about how Annika hasn’t been behaving well.  She runs away from the group all the time and they have to look for her.  She doesn’t sit still…EVER.  She needs to work on it.  We talked to her about it for the rest of the week, and then on Friday I asked one of her teachers (the one who thinks we eat fast food every day) if she was doing any better.  He told me “a little bit” and then proceeded to further demonstrate his ignorance when he asked why she didn’t know how to behave at school, didn’t she go at home in America as required at age 3 here.  (BTW: sooo not a fan of this guy!)  I explained to him that it is not required at 3 at home and that we simply could not afford for her to go to preschool there.  He looked at me in disbelief when I told him how much 20-25 hours of preschool/daycare would cost at home.  Yeah duder, I think it’s horrible too…I digress. 

This brings us to Monday.  I went to pick up Annika, and actually got a chance to talk to her favorite teacher.  She tells us stories about this teacher and runs to her when she is upset.  She is a great teacher who sings lots of songs with the class and seems to have an unending well of patience (which must be a job requirement).  I was happy to get a chance to ask her how Annika was doing and to talk kid strategy with an expert.  Here is a shortened, English, version of how things went down (in German):

Me: Has Annika been doing better?  We’ve been talking to her about her behavior. 
Teacher: Yes, she is doing a little better, but I’m still concerned she doesn’t get it. 
Me: We’ll definitely keep working on it at home.  Should I be addressing anything specific? 
Teacher: You know (deep breath with her eyes closed) Annika is a really restless kid.
Me: (deep breath in) Yes, she always likes to be moving.  She always has.
Teacher: It really is exhausting sometimes.
Me: Yes, for us too.  Do you have any suggestions for us as an expert in kid behavior? 
Teacher:  You know, she really is such an intelligent girl and is just so full of energy.  Certainly part of it is a language issue.  She understands so much more than when she started, but still not quite everything.  She is so much fun and really trusts me.  I think that is just so important. 
I suggest talking to her Pediatrician and taking her to get professionally evaluated.
Me: Ok.  Thank you.
Teacher:  I really do love having her in my class.
Me: (trying not to scream) I know.  She loves coming here.  Thank you for your advice. 

THIS was the EXACT conversation I had been dreading for years.  I certainly did not expect to be having it a month before she turns 4 and in my second language.  Frankly I was ill prepared to deal with it at that moment and I’m still not exactly sure what to say. 

As a medical anthropologist, I am certainly equipped to debate the merits and deficiencies of the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual with regard to the medicalization and categorization of cultural “abnormalities” that should not really be pathologized at all.  I can talk at length about the over-prescription of pharmaceuticals to control behaviors that are physiologically and developmentally appropriate in children and adolescents.  I am trained to debate the ridiculousness of cultural norms that expect children to actually sit and listen in order to learn, when that is only one of many different ways to learn as proven by many scientific studies.  I can deconstruct cultural norms and regulations like it is my job (which it is in a weird way).  But I’m not JUST a medical anthropologist. 

I’m also a mother—a really tired mother that sees the ways that my kid is exhaustingly different from the other kids her age.  I’m a mama-bear that will defend my kid with ferocity.  As her mother, I want her to have every opportunity to learn and find her own way in her own way.  I want so much for her, and I want to help her along her path as much as I can.  I don’t want to break her spirit, because she is such an amazing kid in soo many ways.  I don’t want her to be labeled just because she doesn’t conform.  I just can’t help but be frightened that by not being at all open to the possibility that talking to someone about her energy level as compared to other kids her age might also be closing off a different opportunity for us to grow as parents and for her to learn new ways to learn and behave.  I am definitely NOT open to the possibility of putting my kid on pharmaceuticals, but I AM open to learning new strategies for dealing with her behavior.    

Are we going to talk to Annika’s pediatrician here about it?  Probably not.
Am I going to start doing research about dealing with high energy kids?  YES.
Why didn’t I do it before?   No idea…well…I did have those pesky PhD requirements. 
Is it possible to remain critical of psychological and psychiatric principles while still understanding the fact that they help MANY people and applying some of them to our lives?  ABSOLUTELY. 
Do I think it is a slippery slope to go down?  Only if you are not an informed consumer. 
Suffice it to say, I am an OVERLY informed and critical consumer on this front. 
Am I angry at Annika’s teacher for overstepping her bounds as a professional?  Surprisingly, NO.  After much thought, I’ve decided that my kid is an absolute original.  I love that she confounds even the most seasoned professionals and that she doesn’t fit in their (tiny German) box (yet).  The act of balancing her originality, intelligence, and energy with what is best for her learning environment may have begun a little earlier than we expected, but thankfully she came into a very loving, concerned, overly educated, and advocacy oriented family. 


  1. I have a former co-worker with a 7 yr old son with excessive energy, labeled HDHD, that she refuses to medicate. He uses an exercise ball as his chair at school. The newest teacher thought it was not a good idea until she couldn't get him to sit still in a regular chair, then decided to let him use it with great results. He bounces a little all day long and burns off some of the extra energy. Not saying this would help Annika, but sometimes looking outside the box produces good results :)

    1. Thanks for that Marie! We're definitely looking outside the box for now. I'm reading Popkin's "Taming the Spirited Child" to start this new parenting journey. :-)

  2. Hills, I'm having a hard time not being outraged by what happened at Annika's school! Trying...to...resist...derogatory German stereotypes! That would not be very anthropological of me! I will say that I totally sympathize with your position as a parent who wants her child to be the "right" kind at school even if she's already the "right" kind at home, if simply, as you put it, because you want her to have all the opportunities afforded to "good kids" and not be pigeon-holed or disciplined unfairly. Sigh. It's probably an unfair fight for you on someone else's turf. But in general, as an American, speaking to an American, it's beYOND outrageous to start labeling and medicating kids before they're actually of REAL school age. (Yes, that's 6 for us, you crazy Germans!!) Excuse me Annika's teachers, but you're "teaching" at a glorified day care center that you're running like a military academy! Let the girl run around! Maybe she can't sit still because you're speaking in a funny language, have unfamiliar habitus, and look at her with the cold distain of someone who has never been different. I'd run away and hide too!!

    I'd better stop my rant now before I start silk-screening some Free Annika t-shirts! ;-) Love, S

  3. This is a really important post. It's not just happening in German schools as Anthrobaby intimated. I have to catch up and find where else you talk about this to see what's happened in the last year!

  4. Funnily enough, when I finally did sit down and talk to Annika's teacher about the whole thing, she was somewhat apologetic. When I asked if she was implying that Annika should be medicated, she said, "Oh nein, Gott das will nein, auf kein Fall." Basically: NO WAY!



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