Zero tolerance: Punishing children for being children

Just after the 9/11 attack, a friend of mine watched a lot of television coverage. Then she noticed her 3-year-old child building Lego towers and flying little airplanes into them.

Kids process their world through play. Also, they mimic what they see. That’s how they are wired. They do what they see the adults do around them. And what they see a lot of in the media, is the use of guns. Some time back, the American Psychological Association found that children in the U.S. have witnessed, on average, 8,000 murders just on TV by the age of 11. The trend has only been up.

The movie Avengers was marketed heavily to young children.

The movie Avengers was marketed heavily to young children.

It is quite clear to anyone who is paying attention that it is nearly impossible to shield children from depictions of gun violence if you live a reasonably normal life, watch sports on TV, watch any TV, or  go out into the world at all.

This movie was playing on an airplane on which my children and others were passengers.

This movie was playing on an airplane on which my children and others were passengers.

So why does it make sense for schools to enact a zero-tolerance policy around gun play and suggestions of gun violence for children in kindergarten? It’s absurd. According to this Associated Press article that I read today, there are schools that will suspend children as young as 5 years old for simply acting like normal children, processing their world through play:

Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals she’s going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. In Maryland, a 6-year-old boy pretends his fingers are a gun during a playground game of cops and robbers. In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students while “simulating the sound of gunfire,” as one school official put it.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the schools to teach children about media violence,  appropriate play, possibly even alternative means of conflict resolution?

Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley University writes: “Today, children commonly imitate in play what they have seen in movies, video games and other electronic media as well as TV, and use media-linked toys that further encourage replication of what’s been seen on the screen. And often what children imitate are the models of aggression and violence, so pervasive in entertainment media.”

Lego toy based on R-rated "The Dark Knight Rises"

Lego toy based on R-rated “The Dark Knight Rises”

Do kids imitate what they see? Yes. Does the ambient media culture tell them that pointing guns at people is normal? Yes. Is violence actually intentionally marketed to very young children? Yes. Yes. Yes. For example:

In 2012, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found 650 ads promoting Avengers (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence) on Nickelodeon, NickToons, Cartoon Network, and Disney XD.

Violent video games like Halo are marketed to children through Megablocks.

Violent movies like The Dark Knight Rises are marketed to children through Lego.

Graphic, gruesome ads for violent video games, television shows and movies are regularly shown to families watching sports events on television.  (Common Sense Media called on sports leagues and the broadcasters that broadcast sports to stop.)

Again, from Dr. Carlsson-Paige:  “As they create their own scenarios and narratives [through play], children come to understand and integrate what they’ve experienced in life—the birth of a sibling, an argument overheard between parents, a scary scene viewed in a movie. In this way, play serves children’s learning even more deeply than we sometimes recognize because it’s through the process of play that children continually return to emotional and mental balance and become ready to learn.

How could kicking a child out of school for processing through play that which they see on a daily basis possibly make sense? It’s just confusing for children and teaches nothing but the arbitrariness and unfairness of that school.

Teachers who went to the online version of the New York Times on May 15 would have shown their students this. How does zero-tolerance work in schools when the teacher gets blindsided? Do we suspend the teacher?

Teachers who went to the online version of the New York Times on May 15 would have shown their students this. How does zero-tolerance work in schools when the teacher gets blindsided? Do we suspend the teacher?

I wonder, would my friend’s 3-year-old son have been kicked out of preschool for threatening a terrorist act if they saw him at the Lego table, building towers and crashing into them with airplanes?

Comments

  1. Great post Erin! I don’t know if you’ve read the book “We don’t play with guns here” by Penny Holland, but she makes exactly the point you are making. It is hard to see a child choose a seemingly violent game, but, as you said, with so much violence around them, why are we surprised that violence is part of their play? I wrote about this a while back when my son asked for an army set for Christmas, with references to Penny Holland. Here’s a link if you are interested…http://www.achilleseffect.com/2009/11/is-weapon-play-good-for-boys/.

  2. Thanks, Crystal, and thanks for the additional information and link. Your piece on the meaning behind weapon play is quite eye opening.

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