In Defense of Boys & Guns

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Photo by jill via Flickr
Photo by jill via Flickr

This is a PopTart. It’s a pretty non-threatening almost-food that is commonly eaten by young children and adults who hope to recapture a moment of youth.

Photo by Jennifer L. W. Fink

This is a boy. (One of mine, actually.) Adding a boy such as this to a Poptart does not turn the Poptart into a deadly weapon of any kind, even if it is chewed into the shape of a gun. Not even if the boy also says, “Bang, bang!”

John Welch, a 7-year-old boy in Baltimore, was suspended from school for — you guessed it — allegedly chewing his PopTart into the shape of a gun and saying, “Bang, bang!”

Of course, this is not the first time that a boy (or girl) has been suspended from school for fashioning a “gun” out of something else. And the debate surrounding Welch’s suspension has been completely predictable. Many, many parents, including the boy’s father, who called the decision “insanity.” School officials cite privacy, but clearly feel the need to cover their collective behinds in wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook. What other possible explanation could there be for the fact young John’s school sent a letter to parents that read, in part, “a student used food to make inappropriate gestures?”

Zero-tolerance discipline policies — the kind of one-strike-and you’re-out policies that have resulted in the suspension of kids for everything from hugging to making pretend guns — have also been blamed. (And rightly so, in my opinion.)

But for too many people, this incident will be yet another vaguely disturbing news anecdote to discuss for a few days, at best. That’s a problem, because John’s run-in with school law represents a very clear collision course between boys, schools and society.

It is a well-known fact that boys aren’t doing so well in schools these days. Girls have overtaken boys in almost every area of academic performance, and girls consistently lead boys in both grades and attendance. The proportion of men attending and graduating from college, for instance, has steadily declined; females now make up the majority of college students at every level.

Boys, meanwhile, are

  • 30% more likely to flunk out or drop out of school.
  • Four to five times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD . According to news reports, John has ADHD.
  • More likely to be placed in special education. Two-thirds of special ed students are male.
  • More likely to face suspension or expulsion. 1 of out 5 black boys were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year. That’s 20 percent! 1 out of 14, or about 7 percent, of white boys were suspended during the same year.

When will we see — and acknowledge — the link? When will a majority of Americans demand that our educational system be reformed to meet the needs of all students, instead of severely penalizing some for exhibiting developmentally appropriate behavior?

It is not unusual for boys to chew food into gun shapes. It is not unusual for boys to want to run around, nor for them to compete in physical and non-physical ways. (Think of the old, “Yeah, well my Dad can…” contests of one-upsmanship.) It’s not unusual for boys to prefer a hands-on style of learning, for boys to be attracted to weapons and war games, or for boys to laugh and joke about “disgusting” matters and bodily functions.

Yet all of the above are considered unacceptable in most school settings.

Thankfully, none of my boys have been suspended from school. We have, however, had our share of ridiculous run-ins with stupid rules. Shortly after my second son enrolled in school for the first time — he’d been homeschooled previously — I received a note from his teacher, alerting me to the fact that my son had drawn a disturbing picture of an animal killing a human.

He drew a shark attacking a surfer.

He was 10 years old. (Today, he says, “That’s what you get for letting me watch National Geographic.”)

This year, my youngest son, age six, was forced to redo a drawing of a giraffe for art class — because he drew a dark pile on the ground beneath the hind end of his giraffe and labeled it “poop.” The drawing, I was told, was inappropriate. (Never mind the fact that giraffes really do poop, and that the poop was placed in an anatomically correct position.)

What do these incidents have in common? In every case, a young boy got in trouble for using his imagination to create something. A young boy got in trouble for expressing what was on his mind. (And we wonder why men are reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings?)

If we want our sons to learn, we have to be willing to meet them halfway. We, as adults, need to rediscover the line between fantasy and real-life. We need to remember and review the reams of research that suggest that weapon play is not to be feared in young boys; the playing and acting out aggressive fantasies and scenarios may, in fact, be one way that boys copes with the world around them, while learning what’s OK and what’s not.

We also need to remember that boys (and girls) are not mini-adults; they’re kids. So while some Internet commentators suspect that young John was coached to say that he hadn’t intentionally created a gun — that he was trying to make a mountain instead — I believe him. Have you ever watched a young child draw? Don’t they almost always draw something, and then, as they work, as they see what they’ve made, declare it a “bird” or “gun” or whatever? I know my kids did — and that the “subject” of their drawing could change as they colored. Should a boy be punished for honestly stating that his PopTart now looks like a gun?

I don’t think so.

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