It must be so glamorous, say friends, living in Washington: all those famed Georgetown parties, the glitz, rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the world. Well, yes, I say - if, that is, you don't mind potholes, endless muggings and thefts (our car has been stolen four times), and often poisonous race relations in a city where two-thirds of the population is black but rarely, if ever, mix socially with the white elite of Georgetown et al.

And, I add, nearly every white parent in Washington (and I am one of them) sends their children to private schools, where a black pupil is an exotic rarity. The result, of course, is further division.

So competitive has the privileged society become that no pupil is allowed to be a normal kid any more. My own children, are, thank God, an exception: but every single friend of theirs seems to be undergoing some kind of special "therapy" - be it straightforward psychiatry or extra-curricular lessons on how to catch a ball or draw circles. One of my son's friends is seven, a normal if slightly contrary boy who is clearly highly intelligent and who has a likeable, outgoing personality. At the last count, he was seeing six different experts simultaneously - including one to teach him to say his 'r's properl, because he pronounced them in a New York rather than a Washington accent. He is now on a speed-like drug named Ritalin.

Children of three - I swear I do not exaggerate - are booked in for special one-to-one soccer coaching; children not actually old enough to read are sent to "reading dexterity" classes. Others go to "experts" if their handwriting is less than perfect. Another seven-year-old, who might once have been pronounced "shy" but who is, in fact, both fun and funny with his peers, was said by his teacher to be suffering from "Attention Deficit Disorder", though he had successfully passed all his first-year academic tests. His alarmed parents rushed him off to a psychiatrist, who decreed that he did not have ADD, but did need intensive psychiatric therapy.

If there was the slightest indication that this child needed help, I would fully concur, but there simply isn't: it will make the psychiatrist money and lose some for the parents, but I can't see it doing the boy any good. (Apparently, boys, being more restless and fidgety in classrooms, are considered to have around three times the "problems" that girls have.)

The most disturbing result of this phenomenon, though, is the massive spread of Ritalin, a substance not all that dissimilar in chemical make- up to cocaine. Just six years ago, a little more than 500,000 kids were being given it: now the figure is multiplying all the time and has reached well over 1.3 million. For those who need it, the drug is a Godsend: it enables the distracted and disturbed to concentrate and feel better about themselves. But, again, I know several totally normal kids who queue up every day at school to be given their Ritalin by the school nurse. It is used no less than 10 times more in the United States than it is in France or Britain.

Dr Peter Breggin, author of Toxic Pschiatry, has no doubts about the reasons for its dramatic resurgence: "It's a method of social control of children," he says. "Parents want them to take the drug so they can get through the day."

ADD (the disease of the month here, according to Dr Peter Jensen, head of the Child and Adolescents' Disorders Research Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health), now dovetails with "Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder".

Together, they are by far the two most fashionable and prevalent childhood "diseases" of our times - yet there is no blood test, X-ray, Cat scan, or any other medical way of diagnosing them. Whether or not children suffer from them is invariably simply up to teachers - or, more sinisterly, to "experts" who stand to gain from a positive diagnosis.

Even though the patent for Ritalin expired 23 years ago, it is now a $350 million-a-year industry. This is because the disease, to paraphrase Dr Jensen, has now spread to the public sector too. Five years ago, the US Department of Education formally recognised AD- HD as a disorder, thus making it incumbent on the public system to provide treatment.

Out came hundreds of thousands of prescription pads - some signed by school nurses and their assistants rather than doctors - and the Ritalin manufacturers were soon working overtime to meet orders.

We have known for decades the phenomenon of the troubled American housewives keeping going on Valium while their husbands are working themselves to death in some highly competitive career. But only now is this unwelcome phenomenon spreading to children, some barely out of nappies. It is as though American society has toiled for generations to produce children who, in the 1990s, now need drugs to become more like the children their parents want: no foibles, no eccentricities, just all-American career fodder. This is just one of the reasons why, when friends ask me about the glamorous life in Washington, I inevitably begin: "Well, it's like this..."