The original version was published in educational Horizons 


Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University 

 see also, Poisoning Educational Practice


Once upon a time parents who lacked the courage and/or interest necessary to set limits and impose responsibilities were thought to produce lamed and defiled children. “Spoiled brats” was the common lexicon. Happily, this benighted notion no longer enjoys currency. We now know that a child’s upbringing probably has little to do with “brattiness.” Such children really are suffering from a psychological illness known as “oppositional disorder.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, oppositional disorder’s symptoms include:

(1) violations of minor rules 
(2) temper tantrums 
(3) argumentativeness 
(4) provocative behavior 
(5) stubbornness

No wonder children suffering from the heartbreak of oppositional disorder have been thought of as brats. Insidiously, adopting a perfect cover, the malady mimics brattiness with uncanny verisimilitude. That doubtless is how it escaped detection until the late 20th Century. Today, however, there is a growing awareness of the disorder’s existence and, of equal importance, increasing appreciation of its insidious subtlety. Consequently, more and more parents who used to “cure” Johnny by sending him to bed without supper or even warming his arse, are now  realizing that he needs: 

  1. clinical diagnosis via psychological testing and assessment 
  2. chart notes, a case history, test reports, and probably 
  3. psychotherapy and/or behavior therapy probably combined with 
  4. psychopharmacological treatment using: 
    Ritilin, Xanax, Librium, Klonopin, Tranxene, Valium, Dalmane, Paxipam, Ativan, Serax, Centrax, Doral, Restoril, Halcion, Thorazine, Vesprin, Mellaril, Serentil, Tindal, Prolixin, Trilafon, Stelazine, Taractan, Navane, Loxitane or Haldol.

How can a trip to the proverbial woodshed compete with any of these? Certainly “grounding” isn’t in the same league. Nor is withdrawing privileges. 

I report the discovery of oppositional syndrome with considerable mortification, recalling the number of times I may have misconceived my own children’s symptoms for budding brattiness. I recall with chagrin, for instance, the time I asked my 12 year old son to take out the trash. He griped, “Why should I do that?” and I thoughtlessly responded “Because I’ll kick your butt if you don’t!” He appraised my response, then replied, “That’s a good reason!” and took out the trash. At the time I thought I was, being Biblical about it, “raising up a child in the way he should go.” Now I recognize that he required treatment, not threats.

The young man in question is now making his way in the world. Still, I wonder. Was his choice of a philosophy major in college symptomatic of untreated oppositional disorder? Was that why he never joined the Young Republican Club, hated Pat Boone and refused to wear a pocket protector? If, as I now suspect, oppositional disorder explains much of this, does the malady still lurk in his psyche — perhaps even his genes? Is it lying dormant, like tuberculosis, just waiting to erupt and rain ruin on his marriage or career? (After all, many wives and bosses dislike opposition.) Sadly, this could happen, and more besides. In fact, if the disorder is genetic, it can even be passed on to his kids.

Reactionaries claim that the therapeutic model of child rearing (and schooling) has gotten entirely out of hand. This archetype, they contend, has surreptitiously — and largely without reflection — become the doctrine that “informs” both contemporary child rearing and education. Some of these critics even assert that lots of kids now “diagnosed” as disordered, need little more than love and well enforced limits. They even assert that the therapeutic approach to child rearing is nose-bleed high in popularity because it: lets parents and even educators off the hook, enriches clinicians and increases drug company profits. We can only lament these nattering nabob’s ignorance and urge greater consciousness of oppositional disorder’s insidious threat. You too could be effected.

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Those of us who have come to terms with the modern modus of diagnosis and remediation, know better than this. We realize that “brattiness,” like guilt and responsibility, is passé — a curious, even dangerous, coprolite of a by-gone age.