In our culture, instant gratification has become the norm. You want to watch that T.V. episode you missed last night? Stream it on your laptop. Your favorite author’s new book came out today? Download it to your Kindle. Need a new pair of shoes? Order them online and have them on your feet by tomorrow. Here’s the catch: I can choose to indulge in each of these whims, but I can just as easily choose not to. But what if that choice wasn’t so easy? What if, every time I was faced with an opportunity, I took it before I even had time to consider it?
Meet Jack. You all know him as the scrappy little boy who grew a magic beanstalk and managed to escape the clutches of a giant. And, if you remember, Jack lives with his mom, who’s a single parent. Some interpret Jack as the fairytale representation of an Oedipal child competing for his mother’s affection. It’s an interesting take on the story, but another interpretation talks to the Child Psychiatrist in me.
Jack is free-spirited and spontaneous; but he also chooses danger and ignores consequences. He’s impulsive — a kid with ADHD. As for all hyperactive kids, the simple task of selling the family’s best cow isn’t as cut-and-dried as it might be for the rest of us. There are traps and pitfalls all along the way, and Jack falls into just about every one of them.
On the way to market, Jack is stopped by a man offering a bag of magic beans in exchange for the precious cow. Now, to be fair, I’m intrigued by the sound of magic beans. For an ADHD kid, it’s a no-brainer. So he trots on home with his exciting new prize.
Mom, of course, is livid (although, in fairness to our little Jack, assigning the family’s most important financial transaction to a hyperactive 10-year-old might not have been her best parenting move). So she throws the beans out the cottage window and, wonder of wonders, they grow into a giant beanstalk. Why on earth would this kid choose to do his homework over climbing that beanstalk? His brain doesn’t categorize or sequence events; at any given time, it prioritizes the most appealing option and erases all others. It’s not a deliberate shirking of his duties; it’s a genuine inability to stay focused on one task when a more appealing option presents itself.
Consider a giant beanstalk as the greatest opportunity of a ten-year-old’s life.
So he heads for the castle in the sky (aka the home of the child-eating giant!) and meets a nice lady-giant, who very clearly warns him of her husband’s culinary proclivity. But this place is way too exciting to leave just yet (take note: even when they’re spelled out, consequences for an ADHD child often aren’t appreciated until they actually occur).
When her husband gets home, she offers Jack a place to hide until the giant falls asleep, and Jack can sneak out. Heart racing, palms sweating, fear building, Jack waits. The giant falls asleep and leaves his bag of gold coins on the table. Now here’s the crucial difference between hyperactive and non-hyperactive kids: immediate gratification vs. potential consequences. Our bodies exhibit innumerable signs to stop, when a situation becomes dangerous; Jack ignores every last one of them. “Escape death while I can? Nah, there’s a bag of shiny coins in front of me!” So he nabs the bag and brings it home without waking the giant (lucky). And thus begins Jack’s impulsive streak of thievery.
His mother is thrilled with the unexpected income (again, condoning stealing is arguably not the best way to handle this situation, but we’ll let that slide in order to get back to Jack). So the next day, he climbs that beanstalk again and spies a goose that lays golden eggs. Again, Jack falls prey to what I affectionately call “bright, shiny object syndrome,” which is characteristic of ADHD kids. Because he didn’t experience any consequence for stealing yesterday, Jack sees no downside to stealing today.
But this time, he steals something that squawks, and the giant wakes up. Lucky for him, Jack is already halfway down the beanstalk by the time the giant understands what’s happening. Mom is thrilled that they’re now the owners of a golden egg-laying goose and compliments Jack on his acquisition (really, mom?).
Again, because he escaped unhurt, yesterday’s encounter with the giant becomes an awesome adventure in Jack’s brain and therefore does not act as the deterrent it might for some of us.
So up he goes again, to snatch the giant’s golden harp.
But this time, the giant is ready and is on Jack’s tail all the way down the beanstalk. Jack manages to hit the ground first and frantically calls to his mother for an axe. He swings, and down come the beanstalk and the giant. There are those who might call this the final conquering of phallic uncertainties, or the ultimate act as protector and lover of the mother. But I call it the only option in Jack’s fight-or-flight brain.
Only when faced with a real, immediate consequence does Jack act out against the giant (from whom he has stolen, I might not-so-subtly add). The story ends with happily ever after, but we can only retrospectively wish that Jack’s mother had been able to identify his hyperactivity. Perhaps today, Jack might be the child of a parent who was aware of ADHD, who could help him understand impulse control and the consequences of decision-making, who maybe wouldn’t trade her son’s developmental maturation for some coins, a goose, and a giant harp.
And then again, who can argue with success?
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