Suzie comes from a family recently emigrated from Hong Kong. Her family has always had a very powerful work ethic dating back generations. All of her Chinese friends share the same background, one that takes education seriously. Suzie comes home from school and works for four to six hours without a break. She assumes that this is the way people are, even though her classmates are out playing volleyball and planning the weekend's parties. Suzie's neurodevelopmental capacities keep on getting stretched, perhaps even stretched to the limit. She has developed extraordinary powers of concentration and can exert mental effort whenever she needs to. Her teacher has marveled at Suzie's tenacity, as he comments, "This girl is the ultimate plugger. She won't give up ever until what she has produced is of the highest quality no matter how long it takes her." Her flawless honor grades testify to this. A student's cultural background may help determine which neurodevelopmental strengths get stronger and which ones do not. In some cultural settings athletic prowess is considered valuable; in others, sports are deemed trivial pastimes. Whether or not a teenager reads novels, does crossword puzzles, repairs jeeps, attends Italian opera, engages in household chores, or hunts white-tailed deer vividly reflects the culture in which he or she is growing up. These activities, in turn, profoundly influence a child's profile of strengths and weaknesses.
Christian has pretty much stopped doing any schoolwork. In ninth grade, he is very popular. Most of his friends feel that homework completion is not cool; rather it's a pursuit designed exclusively for geeks, dorks, and other weirdos. Christian, who savors his popularity like a rare vintage Burgundy, has caved in to the social pressure and is failing several subjects. According to his father, "My kid has been lost to his friends. They're all he cares about. I feel as if he has fled from our family and cares only for the approval of his peers. He performs for his friends like a puppet; he'll do whatever it takes to win their applause. And he's with kids who live only in the present. They couldn't care less about school and about their minds."
Friends play a dominant role in shaping the brains of their friends. Children who have no intellectual interests become negative role models for one another. Learning and succeeding in school may be perceived as some kind of social taboo. On the other hand, I have one patient, a thirteen-year-old boy from New York, whose friends and he have a strong interest in politics. They worked on a local campaign last summer and are incessantly talking politics, discussing editorials in the New York Times, and debating raging political issues. He told me they consider themselves "local political dissidents," as their views are pretty radical. In the meantime, they are developing extraordinary language, critical thinking, and reading ability, bolstering their minds' profiles. Their parents are in awe of these boys and girls. One mother confessed, "Half the time I don't even understand what they're talking about, but it sure sounds impressive -- and a little intimidating. I love listening to them. I'm proud of them all. I think they are becoming the leaders of the future. They are really lucky to have each other and we parents are so fortunate to have them as our children."
Deanna suffered a bad case of viral meningitis when she was fourteen months old. Following her illness she developed a seizure disorder, one that has been difficult to control ever since. She is delayed in reading and math. There is a strong suspicion that her medical history played a role in weakening certain neurodevelopmental functions important for acquiring basic skills. Deanna has noticeable gaps in language function and in certain parts of her memory, and she becomes frustrated in school. Her older sister, Beth, worries about her all the time. She always accompanies Deanna when she comes to see me in my office. Beth informed me once, "Deanna really feels dumb. Between her seizures and her trouble at school she feels like she just can't do anything right. I feel so bad for her." Numerous medical factors either foster or impede brain development during the school years. Nutrition, certain illnesses, and physical trauma all may play a role in the shaping of a profile.
Copyright © 2002 by Mel Levine
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