A 5-year-old faced with a pile of Legos did what boys have done since the dawn of time: He fashioned a weapon, ran about and made shooting sounds.
That's when the Massachusetts elementary school sent a letter to his parents and warned that the next time, their son Joe would be suspended. "I said listen, he's a 5-year-old, I think maybe a redirection would be more appropriate," his mother, Sheila Cruz, told a local radio station. "She (the principal) said, 'it's a threat to other children, and other children could have been scared.'"
In the gun debate following the Newtown massacre, a spate of media reports has centered on cases of very young children being disciplined for playing with fake guns or making aggressive gestures: A 6-year-old boy was suspended for pointing a finger and saying "pow." A fifth-grade girl's paper gun, crafted by her grandfather, got her searched before classmates and threatened with arrest.
The zero-tolerance policy applied to children existed well before Newtown: Last summer, a school asked the parents of a deaf 3-year-old to change his name, as his signing gesture violated school policy.
There are two truths operating in America today, regardless of where one stands on the issue of gun ownership. First, far too many children die from guns, more often by accident than by design. And second, very young children don't understand gun play in the same way that adults do. Another truth is emerging: More adults are missing out on the worth of children's play.
The zero-tolerance measures have emerged in a complex adult world navigating terrorism, bullying, reduced budgets and the emphasis on academics. But according to experts in and out of the classroom, the take-home message is children can't use the method they best understand—play—to make sense of the world around them, and to learn the socialization skills that will make them better adults.
When a gun isn't a gun
There are no specific statistics testifying to any rise in disciplinary actions or imaginative gun play. Nor are there any national requirements about such suspensions except for the Gun-Free Schools Act, which dictates that schools expel students who bring real weapons, to qualify for federal funding. (In 2006-07, 2,695 students brought firearms.)
"It's one thing with 15- and 16-year-olds: There should be a zero-tolerance policy to bring any kind of weapon," says Dr. Michael Brody, who chairs the media committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. While an older child can equate guns with danger, young children grasp reality far differently. Even the idea of death doesn't mean the same thing, much less what a gun can do. "It's not until about 8 or 9 years old that they develop the ability of concrete thinking," Brody explains to Yahoo.
To a younger kid, the fascination with guns—or sticks or pointed fingers, for that matter—is an age-old experiment with symbols of power, and not necessarily in an aggressive way. "Sometimes a cigar isn't a cigar," Brody says. "It's a rehearsal for adult roles."
After a calamity like Columbine or Newtown, young children's seeming preoccupation with tools of violence is normal, just like their preoccupation with martial moves after watching Mutant Ninja Turtles. Children merely act out what surrounds them. A 1999 study estimated that the average American child saw 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 simulated murders before turning 18—and that's just television. And, points out Brody, who recently authored "Seductive Screens: Children's Media—Past, Present and Future," "Most of the acts of violence [they see] is justified violence. It's by the good guys: The good guys are beating up the bad guys because they've done something."
In her book "Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play," Jane Katch chronicled young children playing a game they called Suicide—which turned out to be more about spontaneous combustion.
"They were pretending they exploded, and 5-year-olds love explosions of any kind," she said to Yahoo. When the children were told they had to play games that didn't have blood and guts, they invented ninjas cutting witches in half. To a child's mind, that wasn't a bloody deed. "That wasn't their image; It was more cutting a gummy bear in half."
With those competing images, it's no wonder real-life lessons don't stick: One experiment tried to drill home the message to second-graders—in two one-hour classes over the course of two weeks—to tell an adult if they came across a gun. Twenty boys were then left alone in a classroom with a fake gun in a drawer. Once they found that gun, he says, they started chasing each other with the replica. Only two kids out of 20 said somebody had to be told.
At the University of Maine, educators abandoned futile attempts to ban "bad guys" from preschool classroom play and experimented not only with letting villainy return to children's games, but also having teachers agree to play the bad guy. "Over time, we became convinced that children's pretending to act aggressively is not the same as acting aggressively," the study concluded. "Convinced that children could in fact develop social and cognitive skills through such play, we made a conscious decision not to stop play with aggressive themes."
"Children know right away which is playing and which is fighting," says Mary Ellin Logue, an associate professor of early childhood education who co-wrote the study. "Adults had a less accurate assessment."
What adults perceive as aggression is really rough-and-tumble play that exists cross-species and cross-culture, she told Yahoo. Nor is it kids acting up, but playing through concepts of rules, cooperation and socialization. These games can actually expose children with poor coping skills, who attribute hostility where there's none. "Those are the children who are likely to escalate into violence," she says, and they can be spotted. "The research is about 1 percent of that play escalates into violence. We're making our policies for 99 percent based on 1 percent."
Conversely, suppressing play just backfires. Children will call their imaginary gun a firehose and retreat to the other end of the playground. "They get sneaky," Logue says—not the lesson children should learn.
Adult pressures on children
There is one indisputable statistic: 100 percent of all adults were once children. That hasn't made understanding the creatures we once were any easier. "It's amazing to me, in working with parents or other people that have to deal with children, how repressed those memories become—in terms of people not able to reach back and remember what they were like as adolescents and children," Brody says. He sees disproportionate punishments as administrators yielding to concerned parents, rather than advocating for the child. "Sometimes the people making the decisions aren't real experts in terms of child development."
As a longtime teacher, Katch has seen a decided shift in how adults view children at play. "I have no question that there's been a huge change," she says. Katch remembers her post-World War II childhood, when she and other children pretended to be soldiers and folk hero Davy Crockett and shot cap guns. Then came the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. "That was when people started to get worried about children pretending what they've always been pretending." At the same time that children have become inundated with violent images in news, television and video games, adults have begun to criticize children for playing out what they see around them.
"We flood them with too much information, and we don't want them to play about it," Katch says. "And playing about it is how they deal with things."
Society has become far more complicated, and the complications get carried into the school system: We're a time-crunched generation whose extended families have dissipated. Children's schedules have become more structured, recess has been cut, and play has been perceived as less useful than reading and writing by the time they're in first grade.
"We've had more and more pressure put on young children," Katch says. "They can't play anymore in kindergarten; they can't learn how to get along with lessons that will last a lifetime." The other startling trend she sees is the amount of anxiety in children. "It's my personal opinion, the kids who were born around the time of the World Trade Center [attack] are anxious, and it's a much, much different level of anxiety than I've seen before."
"If you look really closely at the children's play, in most cases they're trying to be good. They're trying to protect, and be powerful and masterful and they're using the tool of their culture to do that," Logue says "Sure, it would be great if they just played with nonlethal fingers, but it's a symbol and what they mean and what they intend—we don't talk to them about it. We don't join that play."