Destroying children’s socialization

I know you all caught the story about the school in Colorado that banned tag. The school’s primary stated reason for having instituted this ban was to shelter kids they perceived as emotionally delicate:

An elementary school has banned tag on its playground after some children complained they were harassed or chased against their will.

“It causes a lot of conflict on the playground,” said Cindy Fesgen, assistant principal of the Discovery Canyon Campus school.

To me, the school has it bass ackward. The elementary school years are peak socialization years for children. As much as they are learning in the classroom, they are probably learning more on the playing field. Indeed, Maria Montessori believes that children between 6 and 10 are in their peak social learning years. Kids are as emotionally flexible now as they are physically flexible. Don’t believe me? Do a thought exercise with me.

Imagine that you and your closest friend get into a fight, a really big fight. For most adults, that’s the end of the friendship, isn’t it? Huge barriers of ego and past history are thrown up, battle lines are solidified through reasoned (or so we think) argument, friends and families weigh in, pushing us one way or another.

Now think about your child. Yesterday, he came home complaining that he hates his best friend and they’re never going to play together again. Today, he gets off the bus arm in arm with that same friend, and both beg you for an immediate play date.

Kids do this because they have short memories and crave immediate gratification, both of which lead to an “I hate you now but I’ll love you later when I want to play” attitude. It’s only if the same hateful conduct occurs too frequently, or with too much attendant violence or social humiliation, that the friendship might eventually be severed. Absent that, these kids get to practice over and over and over the skills they’ll use the rest of their lives for non-violent, or low-violence conflict situations. It helps, of course, if their parents can suggest some skills for them to use to deal with different types of playground battles.

And yet, in Colorado, the school — an institution presumably devoted to child development — has shut the door on this absolutely necessary socialization learning experience. Wouldn’t it have been infinitely wiser to have staff on the playground to do two things: (1) prevent bona fida, threatening, emotionally humiliating, persistent bullying and (2) catch the kids in moment of conflict and teach them on-the-spot skills to work out a resolution? In that way, the kids can burnish their socialization skills even as they engage in a centuries, even millennia, old playful rite of passage.

Interestingly, on the same day the tag ban broke, my daughter brought her class rules home. The children worked on the rules with the teacher, and they are almost entirely very sensible, including as they do, not just abstract rules about being friendly and respectable, but really concrete rules for hand raising and moving around the classroom. But the rules also included one that had me scratching my head: “no pretend weapons.” Please note that it’s not a ban on bringing actual toy guns into class. It’s a teacher-led/child-approved ban on that age old toy, the thumb and pointer finger gun.

Now, as it happens, I have a son, and I live in a neighborhood rich with boys. Without exception, an integral part of their play involves imaginary battles, always accompanied by the use actual of toy guns or these manual “pretend guns.” These boys are, without exception, nice boys. They are not unduly aggressive, nor are they obsessed with violence. This is how they socialize, exercise their brains, and figure out (often with parental help) means to work around the real, as opposed to pretend, battles that so often flair up during play. It seems to me that the classroom rules banning pretend weapons essentially say to the boys in the class, whatever you do, don’t be boys.

Right about now, I know someone is going to say, “But these are classroom rules and they shouldn’t be playing rough, as battle games always are, in the classroom. ” If that was the case, though, the rule should have said, “no rough play in class,” or “games are for the outdoors,” or something like that. This was a very targeted rule, at a very specific imagination game that boys play a whole lot more than girls.

As it is, I’ve decided not to make an issue of this rule, because it totally doesn’t affect my daughter. Girl-like, it would never occur to her to engage in an extended imagination game using pretend weapons. To use legal terms, as to this issue, I simply don’t have standing. I wonder, though, if any mothers/fathers of boys in the class will take umbrage at this limitation on boy socialization and imagination.

Beyond the specifics, I wonder what will happen to a generation of children raised in a conflict free environment that kills competition, stifles opportunities to learn about smoothing over fights, prevents exercise, and most certainly says “boys will not be boys.” It’s especially unnerving that we’re raising this type of generation as (Muslim) people all over the world are training their children, boys and girls, to kill without mercy.