While I’m heavily influenced by Taking Children Seriously (TCS), the views presented in this article aren’t necessarily theirs.
Someone shared a screenshot of this article by Colleen Dilthey Thomas in a group chat. The headline reads:
My Son’s Oppositional Defiant Disorder is Relentless — But I Won’t Give Up on Him
The article also features a picture of a boy around age 7 or 8 who screams… ‘defiantly’, as some might say.
Having read only the headline at the time, I responded:
Imagine slaveholders bemoaning their slaves’ lack of obedience and scientizing it by calling it ‘ODD’ [oppositional defiant disorder]. Absolutely disgusting.
I wonder, are any parents diagnosed with ‘abusive tyrant disorder’ (ATD)?
Somebody pointed out that slaves were diagnosed with something like ODD! It was called ‘drapetomania’. From Wikipedia (I’m leaving out links and footnote markers):
Drapetomania was a supposed mental illness that, in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright hypothesized as the cause of enslaved Africans fleeing captivity. The official view was, slave life was so pleasant, that only the mentally ill would want to run away. In actuality, the desire for freedom is a natural human impulse.
Nowadays, everyone views slavery as an abhorrent evil, so in hindsight, it’s more or less obvious how morally and factually wrong Cartwright’s assessment was. We also know the solution: liberty, as a result of taking the slaves’ preferences seriously. Although Colleen Thomas’s son isn’t a slave, of course, those who take children seriously will immediately see that the same problem and solution apply to his situation as well.
As a Popperian, I am interested in the means of error correction. One of the problems with diagnosing slaves with some fake1 condition is that it entrenched the error of not taking them seriously: once diagnosed, they could simply be labeled ‘crazy’ and their preferences shrugged off. The same problem applies not just to slaves. Thomas’s son’s ‘diagnosis’ has apparently had the same effect, as she vows not to give up on him.
Worse, Thomas casts herself as a brave warrior who fights on despite being the victim of her relentless son. But it is not she who is stuck with a problem son – the poor boy is stuck with a problem mom. The very concept of ‘defiance’ implies that she views herself as an authority whose orders her son should follow. She doesn’t view her ideas as being on a level playing field with her son’s ideas. She complains:
He always wants the last word. I know I should walk away, but I’ll be darned if I am going to let a kid win [emphasis added]. He has to learn respect somehow, right? But when I argue, he is winning.
This authoritarian stance is disgusting. She views the relationship with her son as a zero-sum game, but they could both win if only she started taking him seriously. ‘ODD’ as a diagnosis pits parent and child against each other.
You might say: surely she’s just a mother loving her child, right? After all, the word ‘love’ appears 14 times in Thomas’s article. I think she has a strange idea of what motherly love is or should be. It seems to be the classic parental mistake of giving her son what she thinks he needs while depriving him of what he wants:
[…] I am going to work the plan and give him what he needs: discipline and understanding, but most of all, love. He needs to feel like he is seen for the good and not just the bad. [Emphasis added.]
There seems to be a direct causal link between not taking someone seriously and thinking they’re crazy, in the following order:
1) You don’t take someone seriously
2) They insist on being taken seriously but you refuse
3) Their insistence looks (to you) like they’re being crazy
Thinking someone is crazy destroys the means of correcting errors with them. Conversely, once you do take them seriously, they don’t look crazy anymore at all. They have legitimate grievances (such as a lack of freedom in the case of slaves and drapetomania, or being raised by an authoritarian mom in the case of Thomas’s son).
Taking someone seriously also requires a fallibilist attitude because one has to entertain that “‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’”, as Karl Popper said.2 Thomas refuses to consider that her son may be right when she claims to already know the “absolute truth” (see below). She considers various irrelevant factors such as his diet and whether she “let him [yuck; emphasis added] spend too much time in front of the TV” – anything but her son’s preferences. Instead, she implies that she looks at families whose sons don’t have ‘ODD’ “with envy from time to time”. She also makes authoritarian truth claims:
There is one absolute truth in this whole thing, and that is that I am a good mom.
Hear me out. Could it be… possibly, just maybe… that she’s mistaken? That she’s just a shitty mom, and that her son’s ‘condition’ is a healthy response to being raised by an authoritarian? She spends much of the article complaining about him so she can cast herself as his victim. He isn’t even there to defend himself, and family and friends will no doubt identify him by his mother’s name. Even if ODD were real, she shouldn’t nonchalantly share sensitive information about his medical record.
Isn’t all that being a shitty mom? Wouldn’t her son be crazy if he responded positively to that sort of thing?
I, for one, hope that he’ll continue valuing his freedom and independence and refusing to put up with her nonsense. He sounds like a fine young man to me.
PS: The 2014 movie The Babadook initially seems to be about a ‘poor mother’ troubled by her ‘problem son’. As the movie goes on, you realize maybe the mother isn’t so innocent. (If I recall correctly – I saw that movie years ago.) There’s also a short film called Monster by the same director which explores some of these topics. I understand it was a sort of blueprint for The Babadook, which then goes into much more detail. Monster is available for free on YouTube. Other movies such as Parasite from 2019 contain hints about how important it is to take children seriously, even if that’s not those films’ main focus. It’s usually along the lines of: if the child had been taken seriously, a bunch of trouble could have been avoided.3
If you’re wondering how I know the condition is fake, the very term ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ is a giveaway because it’s tautological: any defiance is going to be oppositional by definition. It seems they – doctors, educators, or whoever else enjoys torturing children – just wanted to have an acronym with three letters, ideally ending in ‘DD’ to make it sound more like ADD – ‘attention deficit disorder’ – which is an established diagnosis many will have heard of. That makes the similar-sounding ‘ODD’ more believable. Thomas says her son has been treated for the similar ADHD – ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’. Both ADD and ADHD have a long and ugly history of forcing treatments onto children for not sitting still when forced to do things they don’t want to do. But wanting to get out of uncomfortable situations is also “a natural human impulse”, as the referenced Wikipedia article called it. And natural human impulses cannot be disorders. ↩
For Parasite (spoiler alert), I’m thinking of the child who’s afraid of the basement. Had the parents taken that seriously and investigated the basement, they would have noticed their intruders much sooner. (My recollection may be off here, too, as it’s been a few years since I saw that movie as well.) ↩