By Nick McDaniels — Last week I was at a crowded Baltimore playground watching my daughter climb a climbing wall and go down a slide, climb a climbing wall and go down a slide, climb a climbing wall and go down a slide.
A dozen or so other children were playing below the slide in what was designed to be a lemonade stand for children to pretend to be selling lemonade. When I was last there, I laughed (in my head, of course, so as not to be a giggling adult male alone watching children play) at the fact that we design our playgrounds around a consumer culture. Fantastic!
Today though, a little girl, about 7 and a less little boy of about the same age, were running the stand. Only they weren’t selling pretend lemonade. They were selling pretend weapons.
The girl had an incredible sales pitch describing her inventory. “Swords, knives, grenades, guns…” She was really pushing the grenades, however. As my daughter climbed the wall and went down the slide again, I watched as little boys came up to purchase arms. The boy running the stand went on to describe a knife he owned, a Gerber, which he said was made out of silver. It is not any consolation to know that this boy had no idea what knives are made of. Silver, steel, or plastic, the fact that 2nd graders know this much about weapons is alarming.
How do they know about all this stuff? Sure. Video games! Movies! Comic Books! Television! The Internet! All the usual suspects are to blame. But much of it must be advertising, right? Not only did these children know a lot about weapons, they also knew how to sell them, or at least, were doing a better job than I could.
The fact of the matter is, for me, I am less concerned about exposure to weapons in isolation as I am concerned about exposure to violence in connection with weapons. Weapons are the cigarettes of this generation. Weapons are meant to look sexy, they are everywhere, and they are marketed toward children. Violence is the smoking of this generation, a badge of honor, a mark of success.
I am particularly sensitive to issues of youth violence today, and will be for the rest of my life, having very recently lost one of my best, most promising students, and a wonderful person, to a senseless murder. As much as I would like to just turn away from it all at this moment, as a teacher, and, particularly as a parent, I have a role in curbing the violence. This is a responsibility I must accept, a challenge we must face.
What an interesting generation, though, these kids, growing up post-9/11, post-Afghanistan/Iraq invasion, in a time of crisis and revolution in the Middle East, in a time of constant manufactured threats of nuclear war with one of the smallest, and ultimately, least influential countries in all of Asia. They are numb to it without ever really being in it, I think. The wars, those that the American Legion categorizes as the Gulf War/War on Terror from 1990-present, are completely ingrained as part of our culture, particularly within the last ten years or so. Yet, unlike previous wars, the casualties are relatively limited, or at least we are led to believe that they are, the television coverage does not show the atrocities of war, and the people, adults included, have generally forgotten that there are wars going on, but for the movies, video games, and commercials that glorify it.
We are raising, teaching, kids who have known nothing but living in a country at war, but likely do not know we are at war at all. Could you imagine a child during either of the World Wars not knowing we were at war? The result: kids that are familiar with violence, with weapons, but unfamiliar with the terrible effects thereof. Ask a child in Syria or Somalia how they feel about guns and violence and then ask an American child, both probably equally exposed to the concepts, but in completely different ways. I guarantee you that the Syrian and Somali children would harbor an incredible respect and, hopefully, a disdain for war, while the American child, having never fully seen the atrocities, would be far less thoughtful in that regard.
So what then is the solution? Bring the war home so our kids know how bad it really is? Absolutely not! End the wars? Well, of course!
But when that is unlikely, perhaps we, as responsible teachers and parents, need to expose our kids, albeit delicately, to the world we live in. My daughter is three, so for now, it works for me to tell her not to play with guns, fake or otherwise, not to be violent, etc… But when she is seven, ten, thirteen, how should I handle it? Complex questions deserves complex answers, and I can wrestle through that process with her as much as she is capable of handling at her age. The same goes for the duty I have to my students.
These kids at the playground last week, were doing nothing wrong, and likely, none of them will grow up to have any violence in them at all, but their understanding of the world around them will be shaped by these experiences in childhood. And if they by happenstance turn out to be non-violent people, yet are people who instinctively approve of or promote violence, then I think we are still at a point of societal failure. This issue, violence, weapons, like sex education was for many years and still is, needs to be a prominent discussion at the curricular table. As I usually tell my students, until we change it, this is the world we live in, so we need to learn (read sometimes as: be taught) to live in it, so we can learn how to change it.