Would You Drug Your Child to Enhance Academic Performance?

Filed under: Opinions

bottle of pills

Giving kids stimulants like Ritalin can give them a competitive edge, but should healthy kids be drugged into success? Photo courtesy of sxc.hu.

College students are buying or borrowing drugs like Ritalin from their ADHD-diagnosed peers in order to party hard on the weekends while still making the grade during the week. The most prevalent users are young men at highly competitive universities -- but the trend doesn't stop there.

Parents of non-ADHD children would be willing to give their kids ADHD drugs to enhance their academic performance, according to a recent article about neurologically enhancing drugs in The New Yorker. This troubling trend is on the rise, health experts say, thanks to our cutthroat culture.

A study in the journal Nature found that parents of children who do not suffer from ADHD or ADD would be willing to give their younger kids neurological stimulants in order to help them power through their academic experience. While that surely raised my eyebrows, it doesn't surprise New York City pediatrician and Cornell University instructor Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky.

"These stimulants have been in use, particularly by various military forces, since at least World War II," says Belilovsky. "We know cocaine as a rapid-acting, highly addictive drug today, but its 'sustained-release' formulation, chewed coca leaves, allowed many generations of Andean warriors to maintain peak fighting efficiency. It was clearly destructive in the long run, but as it improved their chances of survival in battle, it allowed them to have a long run in the first place."

OK, so the military uses it. But giving it to kids? Just to make sure they ace that math test? Doesn't that seem a little extreme? Sure, says Belilovsky -- extreme, but not all that unusual. He cites stage moms, pageant parents and the academically competitive as "archetypes" who would be willing to enhance their kids' performance by any means.

"This is a more common situation and tendency than many might realize," he says. "Asking for stimulants to beat other competitive school applicants is not a far step from yelling 'Kill him!' at a hockey game. It is perhaps worth noting that ours is not a society that eats the runts of its litters, but enough families act as if it were."

Giving children these drugs (when they are not medically necessary) can give them an edge over their "un-enhanced peers," says Belilovsky. "Imagine your thoughts jumping around inside your brain like middle-schoolers at recess," he explains. "Stimulants make them behave more like Marines on maneuvers."

Getting into Harvard certainly would be a coup for any child, but there are side-effects from these drugs, and using them for this purpose is "off label" (not approved by the Food and Drug Administration). "While many physicians are prescribing these drugs for non-ADHD patients, I do not recommend this at all," says Belilovsky. "The side effects, like dehydration, crash and burn, appetite loss, and nausea outweigh the benefits when someone is able to function normally and be productive through their own focus, without the aid of drugs."

There is also the risk that kids could suffer from a hyper-focused state, become obsessed with non-essential tasks, or even experience clinical paranoia. They could also have sleep issues, says Belilovsky.

Sounds like the risks outweigh the benefits to me. Then again, my kids are 4 years and 9 months old. What lengths would I go to in order to see them succeed? While I'd like to think I would allow them to develop naturally, I've already experienced bursts of hyper-competitiveness: She can't do the right pencil grip! He isn't waving bye-bye!

My husband is a Harvard graduate and a doctoral candidate. I was a lackluster student whose unrealized potential haunts her. I'd say we have lots of reasons to push our kids to do well, and society is so focused on outward success. I hope we never succumb to these pressures, but I sure can see why you would.

Would you give your kids unnecessary drugs to help them do better in school?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.