Thursday, October 22, 2009

This one is about boys and fantasy violence

Are We Trying to Tame Our Wild Boys?

Examining whether we've gone too far in the quest to quell violence on the playground

Where the Wild Things Are (both the book and the recently released movie) is about a boy who was sent to his room for being, well, wild. The film, which was No. 1 at the box office its opening weekend, has reignited the debate over how parents and schools react to typical boy behaviors. Some parenting experts have even suggested that the book and the movie offer guidance on disciplining kids without squelching their spirits completely.

Back in 1963, when the book was written, it was a time when boys could play Cops and Robbers and shout "Pow! Pow!" without the threat of school expulsion. It's very different today. Recently, first-grader Zachary Christie, 6, of Newark, DE, was suspended and sentenced to 45 days in reform school—um, I mean, an alternative program—for bringing his camping knife, spoon and fork contraption to school to eat lunch with. (He has since returned to school without having to attend the alternative/reform school.)

All of this begs the question of whether our society is trying to "tame" the normal, if rambunctious, impulses of little boys who like to play a bit rough and who sometimes get angry.

Don't get me wrong, anyone who has spent any time in a school as a parent, as a teacher—heck, even as a reporter stopping by to do a human-interest story about a holiday canned food drive—understands that classroom management is the key to running any school. Schools have to be places where all kids, boisterous or shy, can learn. They also have to be safe. Let me state unequivocally that weapons have no place in schools.

And anyone who reads a newspaper, surfs the Web or owns a television set knows that the nightmare of school shootings—incomprehensible tragedies at places like Columbine to Virginia Tech—are rare, but they happen.

But in many schools, zero tolerance for violence policies (which are good) have morphed into zero tolerance for aggression policies, and now, zero tolerance for anything that might even be perceived as aggressive. There are no contact sports on the playgrounds in Cheyenne, WY, and no running on the playground in Broward Country, FL. In one elementary school in Beaverton, OR, Tag has been outlawed.

But it gets worse. Many schools have even banned fantasy violence. According to the Washington Post, an 8-year-old boy in New Jersey was held by police for five hours and forced to make two court appearances for using an L-shaped piece of paper in a game of Cops and Robbers at recess. In Arkansas, another 8-year-old boy was punished for pointing a cooked chicken strip at another student and saying "Pow! Pow!"

When children—and let's face it, most of the kids who do this kind of thing are boys—are given creative writing assignments and come up with tales that involve dueling, swashbuckling, fisticuffs and—wait for it—decapitation, they are told their imaginations are "not appropriate," and the teacher picks up the telephone to the parents. Across our nation, boys are lagging behind girls in writing and lagging behind boys from 15 years ago. Ever wonder if there is a connection?

A couple of months ago, I was giving a workshop to a group of teachers in New Mexico about how to re-engage boys who are mentally checked-out of school—and if you look at the national statistics, there's an awful lot of them. An art teacher raised her hand and told me about a middle school boy who had created an intricate sculpture out of found objects—bolts, washers, wires and bits of a broken dryer dumped in an abandon lot near his house. "As a work of art, it was amazing," the teacher reported. The problem? The boy made a sculpture of a machine gun. The teacher recognized that he was far and away the most promising young artist in her class. Yet the culture of her school—and their zero tolerance toward anything that might be connected with aggression—made her opt not to display his sculpture on Parent's Night.

But it turns out, perfectly normal children, especially boys, tend to think, fantasize and play a great deal around violence. They sometimes think about guns. They sometimes write about sword-fighting. They think that toting a spork is cool. Are they going to grow up and become Virginia Tech shooters? Psychologists say no. But misguided policies and overzealous school administrators have a different view.

Zachary Christie shouldn't have brought anything with a blade into school. The principal should have taken it away and called his mother. Maybe asked him and her to take a day off to figure out how that blade ended up in a classroom. But making him into an outlaw? Time to rethink what we're really afraid of.

Peg Tyre is the author of The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents and Educators Must Do. She can be reached at


Blogger TallGirl said...

Hi Peg...I’m not sure if you remember some correspondence we had last year -- I edited the book "Bright Beginnings for Boys" for IRA -- and every time I read your blog I feel you and I might share a brain. I am the parent of a smart, rambunctious, cuddly, sensitive, athletic, artistic, and very big-for-his-age 4-year-old boy. He is a wild child at times, but equally loving and empathetic always. And even though my husband and I have never allowed a toy gun in our house, nor let him watch violent TV shows or movies, and we have always told him that guns are not toys, every time he picks up a stick or a paper towel roll or a pencil, it becomes a gun or a sword (or, to my husband's embarrassment, a Light Saber). We joke that it’s something in the Y chromosome, but I often wonder.

My son's preschool teacher has told me a few times already this year that "we" (which I assume means more me than her) need to work on his "overly handsy behavior" in school. Meaning, he gets excited with his buddies and ends up rough-housing at times that aren't appropriate. I get it. When you have 18 4yo's in a classroom, you can't have three of them engaged in giggly Wrestlemania. So every morning I remind Hayden that rough-housing is not appropriate in the classroom, and he needs to save his energy for the playground. Well, this morning he told me that his teacher said he's not allowed to rough-house on the playground either; "save it for Daddy," she told him.

While I'm not going to put up a fuss about this because I don't see what exactly goes on out there on the playground -- and because I realize that we need to use this year to prepare him for the realities of “real” school next year -- it does make me sad that our children's generation is growing up being denied that run-around-and-get-your-sillies-out time at school. You're right that this makes them tune out: My son has already told me that he doesn't like school days because his teacher makes him sit still. (Interesting, too, that this generation of children has such obesity problems, as well...definitely a correlation there, no?) I have to say, in defense of my son’s preschool, he came home last week asking if we could play dodgeball. It baffles the mind that an elementary school could possibly even consider making running on the playground a no-no!

Your post today comes at an interesting time for me, too, reading it in my office in Newark, Delaware, where the Zachary case really polarized folks, and having just seen the Where the Wild Things Are movie this weekend. My heart broke for little Zachary and his family; he will carry around this stigma forever, and he will always be marked by this incident. (My husband, by the way, told me that he used to take a very similar camping implement to school to eat his, how times have changed.) And Where the Wild Things, as told by Spike Jonze, has affected me greatly, once again reinforcing how challenging it is to raise strong-willed, sensitive, energetic boys into mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy men. The expectations really are bizarre: Don’t even think about drawing a picture of a gun in school, but you damn well better put on football or hockey pads and beat the hell out of another human being in the name of sport after 3:00.

We are expecting our second child and someone said to me just this morning, "Better hope it's another boy because boys are so much easier than girls." Really? Is it?

October 26, 2009 at 3:41 PM  

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