What’s the Difference?

Javier's and Alejandro's parents could have been in the same Lamaze class. Born days apart but in the same hospital in 1987, the lives of the children had followed almost identical courses: learning differences and attentional issues that turned into trouble in school, evaluations that turned up no psychopathology, just the high verbal IQ and low processing speed frequently associated with kids who have trouble getting their homework done. Both Javier's and Alejandro's middle class parents hired wonderful, supportive, creative tutors not just to remediate or get the children "up to grade level," but to make the curriculum meaningful and get the children turned on to the joy of learning.

In short, their parents did everything right, but the children turned out horribly wrong.

Both Javi and Alex started smoking pot in the ninth grade; both were dealing by the end of sophomore year. Both children became increasingly disrespectful at home, bordering on oppositional and defiant. Lies flowed like water in both homes: "I didn't have any homework and besides I already did it." "I would have been home by curfew but there was an accident on the Interstate." "The marijuana isn't mine. My friend must have put it in my backpack."

When Javi was expelled from school for repeated skipping and refusal to comply with any rules, his parents approached me about how to get their son back on the right path. When Alex was arrested for burglary ("It wasn't my fault; we were just hanging out by the pool") his parents came to me for a recommendation about wilderness therapy.

I counseled the families about the appropriate facilities, eight weeks in the woods followed by a year at a therapeutic boarding school. Both boys had to be escorted--or "gooned" as they called it--picked up at four in the morning by trained escorts and taken to the program.

Both boys made progress. Neither Javi nor Alex smoked pot or took Xanax for 12 months. Both boys learned how to compensate for with their learning differences and made tremendous strides academically. Both boys came home clean and sober with a good attitude about education and optimism for their future.

Fast forward five years.

I spoke to both families recently. Javi has slipped back into his reliance on substances. Only now his drug of choice involves IV needles rather than rolling papers. He has been in and out of rehab four times. His parents have tried tough love, intensive out patient, twelve-step, active recovery, everything you can name. Javi has even been in jail for his addiction issues, but is still unable to stay clean for more than three months at a time.

In his parent's opinion, their son is a "dead man walking." His judgment is so impaired, his self-esteem so low, his future so limited that it is only a manner of time before he overdoses, commits another drug related crime and is shot by a police officer, or wanders into oncoming traffic. Of course his parents are devastated.

Meanwhile, Alex has just finished his Master's in Business Administration.

How is it possible that these two young men, practically identical in every respect of ethnicity, religion, geography, family background, cognitive profile, right down to their sub-scores on their IQ tests could have such markedly different life paths? And what do these outcomes say about our ability to predict who will end up in jail and who will end up in a board room?

In retrospect it is easy to point fingers, throw stones, and tell Javi's parents what they did wrong: You should have got him into treatment sooner, you should have known he was smoking pot in ninth grade, you should have taken him to a psychiatrist rather than to a psychologist, you should have bottle fed rather than nursed. You should have stood on your head.

As anyone who has ever watched a sporting event or made an investment will tell you: If you want to have an arrow in the exact middle of the target, it is easier to shoot the arrow, THEN paint the target. "I knew it!" we all exclaim. After the event.

As always, I eagerly await your comments and insights.

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