A mom recently shared with me a teacher’s email about her 10 year old son. It went something like this…
Jason was discussing Molotov Cocktails at school. This is not the first time he’s been discussing violent things, so I sent him and the other boys to meet with the Principal during recess.
Maybe Molotov Cocktails isn’t a great topic to be (overheard) discussing at school these days. Constant, frenetic media drives up our worries about safety. Everyone is on edge. Schools are cracking down on any language that teachers or administrators perceive as “violent.” They worry boys are becoming more aggressive. In some cases, tamping down some talk (e.g., bullying, being mean, etc.) has real merit, but in this case I believe it doesn’t. Here’s why:
Boys aren’t talking about weapons or war more often than they used to. Truth is, they are being kept indoors and inactive more these days, and teachers are overhearing normal boy-talk and are disapproving of it. If boys had more time outside to release normal pent up aggression, share their fantasies and curiosities about violence in healthy, playful ways, we would not be getting these type of emails that the school is concerned about violent talk. More male teachers would help tremendously. Like me, male teachers were boys once, and we know such talk is common – a part of exploring the legitimate desires we have to understand power and aggression.
Here’s what I recommend teachers and administrators do.
Rather than punish boys for thinking thoughts and expressing themselves, use what they talk about as a learning opportunity. I’d ask these questions: What is a Molotov Cocktail? Do you know what it is or what it does? Where did you first hear or learn about it? (My guess, they heard it on the Discovery or History Channel or on the news. Google it and Wikipedia has a very comprehensive history of it). I would also ask: Why do people invent weapons in the first place? Is there ever a good reason – or reasons – to use weapons? How do people feel talking about these type things?
None of these thought-provoking, potentially education-yielding questions got asked here. Rather, the goal was to label boy talk/play as wrong and squash it.
In my clinical work, I seize these opportunities. It helps children understand themselves and the world better. It may be an off-color remark, a swear, something said to shock me or their parents, a mean thing they heard about or want to say, an obsession with guns, fighting, and aggression that they see in video game play or read in fantasy novels. It’s common for boys to engage in very aggressive play with dinosaurs and small army men in my office. After 9-11, more kids crashed Lego planes into towers. What I’ve learned over the years is that when kids – especially boys – say or play something that feels uncomfortable to me, it often carries deeper meaning. It’s my job to pull that out and give them a safe, non-judgmental place to explore it. That calms them. That channels their frustrations and anxieties into a healthy outlet.
There’s a balance to strike here. We don’t want kids to be able to say or do anything they want without reasonable monitoring and guidance. But simply shutting down all talk and play about things that make us feel uncomfortable isn’t going to decrease violence. In fact, talking and playing about violent things, within healthy limits, leads to people being less likely to engage in violence.