How do we deal with kids and terrorism?
“There is no activity for which young children are better prepared than fantasy play. Nothing is more dependable and risk-free, and the dangers are only pretend,” ‘The Importance of Imaginary Play’, 2004, Vivian Gussin Paley.
As the feds investigate Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old student who built a clock and was subsequently arrested when a non-science teacher thought the clock was a bomb, here in New Jersey a group of 5th graders were arrested for making a “bomb” out of ranch dressing, cinnamon sticks, and other spicy foods. Stories of school aged kids being arrested for (or accused of) terrorism are becoming commonplace. Are we, as a society, treating children as children or are we letting paranoia take over our schools? How do we handle kids and terrorism?
Years ago, the childhood game of “cowboys and indians” was very popular. Kids used their imaginations and divided into two groups, then “fought” each other. Another popular variation of this role play is “cops and robbers”. In either case, children are pretending. They’re using play and imagination to work through complex issues and develop their cognitive abilities. Today, these types of activities are discouraged, with naysayers claiming the games encourage violence and bad behavior. In some cases, toy guns are actually illegal, and Walmart paid over $300k in fines this year for selling illegal toy guns.
“We’ve had 63 people shot in New York because law enforcement officers thought the toy gun was a real gun,” Schneiderman said during an appearance on the “Today” show. “That’s not acceptable.”
Now, I understand why this is a sensitive issue. I understand why parents don’t want their children roleplaying with toy guns or imagining violent acts. But, when are we crossing the line between protecting our children and legitimately punishing them for thought crimes?
In the case of the Clifton, New Jersey 5th graders, I wonder: did the school miss an opportunity to discuss what’s really going on in the world, how the students’ actions (while creative) were not appropriate, and move on from there? The school suspended the group of 5th graders with the Altoids tin of spicy foods, despite the fact that “[a]uthorities said the concoction was “an immature and unrealistic plot,” with Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Vales stating that it was “neither flammable, nor dangerous, nor did any student possess any type of lighting device.”” Yet, the children were suspended from school, missing out on valuable education and being punished for what was, essentially, a thought crime.
We are so paranoid about terrorism, that we are arresting and punishing 10 and 11 year old children for roleplaying scenarios they see or hear about in the news or from their friends and family.
“It is a very strange thing that is happening in our society,” said Katch, who is the author of “Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play” (Beacon Press, 2002). “The violence in the media is more and more explicit, and at the same time culture is coming down harder and harder on little boys’ own fantasies, which are actually much less violent than what is in the media.” (Source)
The most important thing to take away from Battling the Boys, a 2010 Livescience.com article, is this: “There is no such thing as violent play,” Thompson told LiveScience. “Violence and aggression are intended to hurt somebody. Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”
In the case of the Clifton 5th graders, educators missed the mark. There was no credible threat, no legitimate explosives, not even a lighter or other fire-starter. The 5th graders were role playing and using their imagination to work through social issues. While the world we live in today is certainly a scary place, we do not need to fear our children: we need to help them. We need to provide them with a safe place to use their imaginations, to role play like children always have, and to understand that bad thoughts are not the same as bad actions.
What do you think about terrorism, children, and trying kids as adults in this heightened state of alert? Share your thoughts in the comments.