According to therapists, it’s usually mothers, not fathers, who aggressively seek or at least heartily acquiesce to intervention. “It’s always the woman that seems to spearhead it,” says Judith Fox-Miller. “It’s not often I have a relationship with the dad.”
Another therapist suspects she rarely gets to meet the dads because they have a harder time than mothers facing the possibility they’ve helped sire imperfect children. “Fathers have maybe more ego involved and cannot imagine there is something wrong with their child,” she says.
One mother had a less psychologically freighted explanation for lack of paternal involvement—laziness. “I think he is really appreciative,” she says of her efforts to prep their son for the ERB. “He wouldn’t do it himself.”
Indeed, another mother says she really appreciated her son’s Special Education Itinerant Teacher—a sort of personal educational trainer who follows a child around his preschool, facilitating his relationships with his peers—because the SEIT provided the boy the male companionship that was missing in his relationship with his father. “My husband isn’t home a lot,” she explains. “He’s in the financial realm. He works hard and travels a lot.”
Some fathers have a different explanation for their lack of interest. “It’s an expensive indulgence,” says an elementary-school father whose son had a speech problem at 3 for which his wife sought therapy. “The mothers have the children’s best interest at heart, but they’re deceived by this culture, paying for everything to be fixed. My wife agrees with me now. She woke up.”
Perhaps more of a problem than under-involved dads are parents, both mothers and fathers, who are so distracted by the Sturm und Drang of their own lives that they subcontract out most child-rearing responsibilities, including those involving therapy. By doing so, they may be abetting the descent of their children into the very developmental peril they’re trying to alleviate.
That’s ironic, since, as Shonkoff notes, the most important component of raising happy, talented children is the secure relationships they have with their caregivers, their parents in particular. “A lot of the time, the kids come with the babysitter,” says one therapist. “Often the parents are both working. Ninety-five percent of the time, I meet the mothers. When I don’t have the parents in the sessions, I try to have meetings with them.
“It’s sad,” she adds. “Oftentimes, I don’t know the parents as well as I’d like to. But neither do the schools.”
Janine Pollack also says that the majority of her interaction is with mothers, and not only because the dads are usually off at work. “Maybe it’s that the women feel more accustomed to doing things in a community and asking for help and sharing,” she observes.
One mother of a 2-year-old who wasn’t as coordinated as she’d have wished didn’t hesitate to seek therapy, even though the child’s pediatrician told her the little boy was fine. “He’d bump his head when he got up, and he’d fall a lot,” she remembers. “The diagnosis is dyspraxia, which used to just be clumsy.”
In fact, her toddler reminded her of herself when she was growing up. “I knew what it felt to be the last picked on the team. I didn’t want that experience for my son. When you see issues with your child there’s family shame associated with, you want to fix it.”
“There’s a continuum and a wide spectrum of coordination and agility,” Shonkoff explains. “Some of it is related to how the child’s profile fits in with what the family wants. For some families, anything less than a gifted athlete is a problem. For other families, if you’re verbally proficient and a klutz, they don’t care.”
The mother cared. Not only did she send her child to a physical therapist who put him through the toddler equivalent of boot camp—running obstacle courses, fishing for metallic objects with a magnetized fishing rod, etc.—she also had his eyes tested after discovering what she describes as “visual-processing issues” while home-schooling him for the Stanford-Binet. “When he’s tracking,” she explains, “he moves his head to be able to see from one side of the page to another, rather than moving his eyes.”
“Vision is a skill that has to develop over time,” explains Andrea Thau, the Park Avenue optometrist she took the little boy to. Shonkoff chuckled at that notion. “Years ago, people used to think reading difficulties were related to eye-tracking problems,” he says. “And that’s been pretty much debunked. By and large, reading problems are language-based, not visual-based.” Nonetheless, Thau, who claims that eyesight is more complicated than suspected, encompassing such talents as focusing, following a target such as a tennis ball at a match, and finally having the ability to make both eyes work in unison, has a loyal clientele.
Michel Cohen is careful to say that there are many occasions when therapy is warranted. “We get better at diagnosing,” he says. “I want to make sure we don’t overdiagnose. All of a sudden, a kid has to behave a certain way, achieving certain milestones. The referral comes from the school. The parent wants the best for their kid, so they go along with the whole program.”
Julie, the mother of a 10-year-old, grew skeptical of the culture of intervention after her son’s school pressured her to have him tested when he started supplying brief answers to essay questions on tests if he could get away with it. The child was intelligent, perhaps even brilliant. “We prided ourselves a bit on not being torqued-out parents,” Julie continues, “but we realized we can’t say we’re not going to pursue this. It was, ‘Go get an appraisal.’ That’s when I kind of lost faith in the system.”
Indeed, it was balls that proved to be the boy’s downfall. Three hours and $600 later, the therapist determined he wasn’t exactly Derek Jeter when it came to catching; he also favored one side while doing somersaults.
“Into hour two, you could see she was groping to find anything wrong with him,” Julie remembers. “Ultimately, her report hinged on when you threw the ball to him his eyes couldn’t quite master coming into focus. A real tipoff to me was when this therapist said, ‘This is the fifth child this week who has this same eye thing.’ ” Nonetheless, Julie dutifully brought the boy to an eye specialist as recommended by the physical therapist. He couldn’t find anything wrong with him either, and the child went back to school. In the meantime, his abbreviated essay-writing style seems to have cleared up on its own. “The following year, he had a teacher who did not redline every single phrase he wrote,” his mother says. “What was wrong was that the teacher intimidated him into not writing much because he’d jumped a year. “I think it was all done in good faith,” she says, sighing. “They specialize in early intervention. Every kid has been in therapy. It’s how they do things. It’s part of the philosophy—no child goes untreated.”
Clotilde no longer has to worry about running into fellow parents at her son’s physical-therapy sessions. “I’ve decided tomorrow will be the end of this therapy craze,” she announces while her son plays in the sandbox of the playground at Union Square Park—his little legs still folded into that damning W that forced him into therapy in the first place. Though she stopped his speech therapy, she continued sending him to occupational therapy until recently.
“When we do therapy, he’s miserable,” she says. “They’re making him do things he doesn’t want to do, for Christ’s sake. You’d tell me to fuck off, which is basically what he’s saying. They’re at an age where the only thing they know how to do is play.”
A few days later, Clotilde calls to announce that her son seemed not at all to suffer withdrawal from occupational therapy. “He’s definitely more relaxed,” his mother reports. “Coincidentally, he’s talking much more now. He calls his father chéri. I call him chéri. He’s running after his father calling him chéri.”
She says she’s never told her relatives back in France—where she says attitudes toward child-rearing are more laissez-faire—what she and her little boy have gone through. And she’s not planning to. “It’s an alternate reality,” she says. “These kids have no problems. They’d tell me I’m completely nuts. And they’re right.”