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Let's Play Make-Believe

Nancy Ahern

is a freelance writer and columnist in Arizona.

by Nancy Ahern, June 30th, 2001

Let's play make-believe. We'll make believe that you are a small, slightly backwards nation. And I will be a large, wealthy and well-developed nation. Now, let's pretend that you got angry with me, and you sent a tiny cadre of troops to the border we share.We'll make believe that your troops waved their guns in the air ... fired a few rounds in the air, and yelled a lot. Now, in this game of make-believe, since I am a large nation, my appropriate reaction would be to lob a nuclear weapon at you and blow your tiny little butts off of the face of the earth, right?


What do you mean that seems a little extreme? Isn't it right for a large, authoritarian, powerful and knowledgeable nation to teach the small, ignorant, backwards nations a lesson that they will never forget? It will serve as a message to all small, ignorant, backwards nations that they should NOT play with guns and threaten peace-loving peoples, after all. It is the right thing to do.

Or not. The above scenario, the above hyperbolic make-believe session is not so make-believe to two small boys in Irvington, New Jersey.

Might Versus Right

Last March, eight-year-old Hamadi Alston pointed a paper gun at his classmates and threatened them. "I'm going to kill you all," he said. He also said that he was only playing cops and robbers. I remember that game. I remember pointing sticks, and even realistic-looking plastic guns at my friends and threatening to kill them. My friends did the same to me.

One of Hamadi's classmates is Jaquill Shelton -- also 8 years old. Jaquill is accused of giving the paper gun to Hamadi. Together, these boys have been punished with the equivalent of a nuclear weapon: they have been charged with making "terroristic threats" and this charge stays on their records for the next ten years.Eight year old boys, playing games we all grew up playing with make-believe toys that everyone knows are make-believe are now known as school terrorists -- two third graders, playing. Two third graders with criminal records.

The action arose from the Zero Tolerance school issue.The media plays up a number of horrifying events where wrong-headed and disturbed youth take the lives of classmates, and the public reaction is to overreact. Law enforcement and school officials, acting in the role of the large, knowledgeable and powerful benefactor nation have decided that the only way to stomp out violence in schools is to smack down even the appearance of make-believe violence, quickly, ruthlessly and shamefully.

If a child takes a real gun to school, waves it threateningly at his classmates and makes a real-sounding threat, this policy almost makes sense. If a child aims his finger at a teacher and tells her he hates her and wants to kill her, perhaps it makes sense to talk to the child and discover just how serious a problem he has. But to brand a child as a criminal for playing cops and robbers with his friends, with a paper gun, is asinine!

The Gaping Wound

This policy does nothing to address the real issues. It is slapping a leaky bandage on a gaping wound, and letting the wound continue to bleed while we all congratulate ourselves that we have finally Done Something.

No. The correct way to address this issue is to, first of all, be smart enough to recognize when a child is playing the sort of game children have played since there were children (little Og the cave boy raising his make-believe stone club and threatening his little friends the make-believe enemies), and to address the child as a child who is playing a game that may be inappropriate. The next step is to be smart enough to recognize when there may be other issues at play in the child's world -- issues that do not call for harsh punishment, but for understanding, and possibly, therapy. For the child with the real gun, or the real hatred, we need to find out why that hatred exists and how we can solve his or her problems. Branding her a criminal and smacking her down is not going to solve anything.

I, personally, do not care for guns. I did not like it when my own children played pretend with them.Rather than spank them and call them names, though, I spoke to them about guns. I spoke about the real dangers that real guns pose when used carelessly. I spoke about the proper handling of guns, and how responsible people trained themselves in how to take care to not hurt people with guns unless they were in danger. I used their games as a teaching opportunity. In among those lessons were the basic lessons that I think our public officials could stand to relearn:

You don't teach anyone anything good by destroying him.

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"...Together, these boys have been punished with the equivalent of a nuclear weapon: they have been charged with making "terroristic threats" and this charge stays on their records for the next ten years ..."

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