This blog post may seem a bit out of place for an addiction specialist. However, I think it important to understand that the cause of addiction is multifactorial. Some causes are innate – alcoholism, for example has a strong genetic component but many other modulating factors are learned.
Think of a rat in a cage. When exposed to a noxious stimuli the rat will try and escape. People behave similarly. So if a student is unhappy in school, he/she will either not go to school at all or will try and escape through substances that will change the way he/she feels while in school.
As a parent of a child in NYC I have seen how our school system, with all its good intentions, makes students feel inadequate. This subject is rather taboo – and not discussed often. Even when it is, the focus is on the elite high schools and their entrance requirements. However, let’s wind back the clock to elementary school – even kindergarten – and you can see how the seeds of self-doubt are sown in a student’s mind.
Let’s start with reading. Many kindergarten teachers subscribe to the use of “sight words” as a basis of a literacy curriculum. Briefly, rather than sounding out words like most of us were taught to do, kids today are taught to recognize words as single entities in order to enhance the early reading experience. I have no issue with the change in method. I will leave that debate to learning specialists. However, what is apparent is that this seemingly innocuous approach to an important skill – reading – comes with “baggage” that is problematic.
Let me explain. These sight word lists are distributed to parents and we are expected to work with our children to memorize the lists prior to the child being “tested” by the teacher. Depending on the aggressiveness of the parent and/or child, one child may be on List 1 while another is on List 8. Anyone who believes the kids don’t know exactly where they stand in this regard is lying to themselves. My daughter knows exactly who is doing which list. Moreover, it breaks my heart to hear her say – at the age of 5 – that she is not as smart as some other kid in the class because she can’t memorize things as fast. To make matters worse, when you complete a list you get a “sight word crown”. Really, I’m not kidding. You get a crown that commemorates this achievement and says to everyone else who has not yet achieved it that they are somehow inadequate.
This methodology has another significant problem. Children are not learning to read because it is intrinsically enjoyable or because it provides information that is of interest to the child. They are learning to read because it results in an external reward – a sight word crown – and defines their self-worth not intrinsically, but in reference to where he/she stands in the pecking order relative to the other children.
Fast forward a number of years and multiply this experience but 100 and the result is predictable. In my view, what needs to be done to prevent drug abuse (and other unhealthy ways to escape) is to completely revamp the educational system through the creation of an ego supporting curriculum. What an adolescent needs to know is that one has to look internally – and not to external forces – to find happiness. It may seem cliché’ and “new age” but adolescents need to find value in themselves and what they do – not what they put in their mouths or veins.