‘Bang’ goes childhood innocence

Imagine how many times, as a child, you might have pointed a finger at another child and pretended it was a gun. Now imagine that this harmless, childish game was taken by your school teachers to represent a genuine threat of violence. Because that’s exactly what happened at a school in Alabama recently, when a five-year-old girl called Elizabeth drew a picture of a gun, and then pointed a crayon at her friend and said ‘bang’.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, her teachers viewed this as a serious incident requiring official intervention. The five-year-old was made to sign a contract stating that she would not kill herself or any other children in her school. Her parents had no say in the matter, and her mother was so afraid of repercussions that she refused to give Elizabeth’s last name to the press. 

Underlying this bizarre episode is a tendency on the part of officialdom today to project adult worldviews on to children. One teacher asked Elizabeth if she was depressed, despite the fact most five-year-olds wouldn’t be able to comprehend what depression is. The clause in which Elizabeth had to promise she would not commit suicide is even more troubling. Perhaps to her teachers’ surprise, this prompted Elizabeth to ask her mother ‘What is suicide, mommy?’.

The teachers would probably argue that they were concerned for the safety of the girl and her classmates. Given recent headline-grabbing, gun-related tragedies in US schools, they may even have thought they were nipping another Columbine in the bud. But teaching a five-year-old about suicide, depression and murder is the opposite of protection. Children need the authority and leadership of adults to feel safe and secure in the world. They are not adults and get scared and upset when asked, implicitly or explicitly, to grapple with adult issues and responsibilities.

It’s unlikely that Elizabeth’s game reflects her own innately violent tendencies. But her teachers’ reaction to it reflects a worrying trend: in the name of child protection, children are being robbed of their innocence.

Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.

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