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My Boys Like Shootouts. What's Wrong With That?

For his part, the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of "The Good Enough Parent," said that there is clearly a gender difference in the toys parents give boys and girls to play with, but he thought that rather than taking guns away from boys, parents should pass them out to girls, who would be served "equally well to be able to discharge their anger through symbolic play, as with toy guns."

While the zero-tolerance debate about guns and other such toys predated the 1990s, it was greatly accelerated after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings as educators rushed to develop formal policies against weapons (fake or real) in schools. This made obvious sense to most parents -- these toys do lend themselves to disruptive games and it can be difficult from a distance to distinguish between real and toy weapons. However, nervous school officials soon began to apply these policies as strict liability offenses where even the most minor violation is treated as a cause for arrest, expulsion or special schooling.

Consider:

· In New Jersey, an 8-year-old boy used an L-shaped piece of paper in a game of cops and robbers during recess. School officials called the police, saying the child had threatened "to kill other students" by saying "pow pow" on the playground. He was held for five hours and forced to make two court appearances before charges were dropped. Two 8-year-old boys were charged with making "terrorist threats" after they were found pointing paper guns at classmates. Charges were later dropped.

· In Texas, a 13-year-old girl was suspended and transferred to a school for problem kids after she brought a butter knife to school with her lunch. Her parents had packed the dull knife so that she could cut her apple to make it easier to eat because she wore braces.

· In Arkansas, an 8-year-old boy was punished for pointing a cooked chicken strip at another student and saying "pow, pow, pow."

· In Georgia, a 5-year-old student was suspended after he brought a plastic gun the size of a quarter to his kindergarten class.

Even drawing a picture is too close for comfort under these zero-tolerance policies. In Florida, two 10-year-olds were arrested after drawing stick figures considered to be threatening, and in Nevada, teachers tried unsuccessfully to expel a boy for drawing a cartoon of the death of his teacher.

While many people are complaining about such harsh actions and lawmakers are beginning to call for more moderate policies, some parents want zero-tolerance policies extended to playgrounds, parties and other venues. That has put many of us who have a more expansive view of what is acceptable childhood play in the unenviable position of either conforming to a policy that we believe to be excessive or continually triggering confrontations with zero-tolerance parents.

Of course, it is a bit troubling to be seen as a local gun merchant supplying the weaponry of gratuitous violence to our playgrounds. However, we do not believe that play guns and swords are ruining our children. Frankly, after three boys, my wife and I have resolved the nature/nurture debate in our house in favor of nature.

Yet on the playground there seems to be a palpable fear among zero-tolerance parents that boys harbor some deep and dark violent gene that, if awakened, is likely to end years later with some sort of Hannibal Lecter situation. Of course, there are at least 100 million men in this country who probably played with toy guns or swords as children and did not grow up to become serial killers.

As one of five kids (with two older brothers), I grew up in a liberal, no-guns household in Chicago in the 1960s. My mother considered it her duty to smash any squirt gun we brought into the house. In looking back, though, I'm sure that her gun-free policy made us all the more obsessed with the toys. My kids, on the other hand, show no such fixation. They rarely play gun games (sword fights are more common) and are more inclined to hunt for valuable rocks on the playground or convert our best linens into makeshift yurts in the living room.

Still, when their best friend recently invited them to his Army-themed birthday party, it didn't bother us a bit (though some parents did refuse to let their children attend). In fact, I was struck by how, more than combat fighting, the boys tended to act out scenes involving rescuing comrades or defending the wounded. What I saw was not boys experimenting with carnage and slaughter, but modeling notions of courage and sacrifice. They were trying to experience the emotions at the extremes of human conduct: facing and overcoming fear to remain faithful to their fellow soldiers.

Or, as child psychologist Penny Holland put it in her book, "We Don't Play with Guns Here," their make-believe games were "part of . . . making sense of the world [imitating] timeless themes of the struggle between good and evil." This explanation is probably all the more important in a world filled with violent images of war on television and in the news.

Being a weapons-tolerant parent doesn't mean I'm thrilled by these games. I would prefer that my sons played nation-builder or rocket scientist. However, before they get to such fantasies, they seem to have to work out more basic emotions in more basic ways. So for a few more years at least, the celery will remain in the fridge and the swords on the playground.

jturley@law.gwu.edu

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University.


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