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So is it OK to tell ADHD kids to ‘pay attention’?

Posted Mar 15 2011 10:15am
A recent Huffington Post piece titled the The Trouble With Bright Girls got me thinking. The essay by motivational psychologist and author Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., explored why intelligent and competent professional women often prove to be their own worst enemies.
As is often the case with dissecting deep-seated behaviors, Halvorson pointed to childhood in exploring the cause-and-effect of why women judge themselves more harshly, and even differently, than their male counterparts judge themselves. And in her explanation, I see a potential correlation for ADHD children, both male and female, that makes me question what should be considered negative input.
Halvorson talks about a 1980s study of how bright girls and bright boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material. What the study found was that the girls were quick to give up when they couldn’t grasp the material right away while the boys eagerly accepted and conquered the challenge. Why that key difference at such a young age?
The theory is that it has to do with the differing feedback boys and girls get from parents and teachers as even younger children. “Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their ‘goodness.’ When we do well in school, we are told that we are ‘so smart,’ ‘so clever,’ or ‘such a good student.’ This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't,” Halvorson writes.“Boys, on the other hand, are a handful,” she continues. “Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., ‘If you would just pay attention you could learn this,’ ‘If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.’) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren't ‘good’ and ‘smart,’ and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.”In the end, bright girls who view their abilities as “innate and unchangeable” will likely grow up to be women who are too hard on themselves and who prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed at something outside their comfort zone. Clearly it’s not an outcome with which we as a society should be content. But as the parent of an ADHD son, I can’t help but wonder about the implications for children like mine.  If you would just pay attention you could learn this.” How many times do ADHD children hear this kind of phrase in the course of a single day, do you think? It’s the kind of input I have cautioned myself and others to avoid, since for Joe paying attention isn’t always a choice. But if it is the kind of feedback that “wires” boys to embrace difficult material as a challenge and not give up in the pursuit of success, why wouldn’t it provide the same benefit for an ADHD child who ultimately does finish homework or earns a decent grade, whether male or female?ADHD kids no doubt hear more about having to try harder than most. Does that mean they’ll be extra open to tackling challenges and will end up better equipped for success when I thought they were more at risk for struggles? Is it truly counterproductive to avoid telling Joe things like he needs to do a better job of paying attention? Or are there caveats to this theory when it comes to children with ADHD, even if they are bright? Am I over-thinking this?As a former bright fifth-grader and a competent professional woman who has spent a lifetime being hard on herself both professionally and personally—often in the pursuit of praise—I could use a little help here.Tammy Murphy is a former journalist turned public relations maven. She’s the mother of two—a 14-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son whose ADHD and related symptoms were evident practically from the womb. Tammy is a native of Maryland and a recent Georgia transplant. She started blogging about her up-and-down experiences with Joe—and life in general—as much-needed therapy. You can read her honest attempts at connecting the dots on Tammy Time .
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