An elementary school in Massachusetts has adopted a well-intentioned rule that serves as a cautionary tale for us as parents. The new rule advises students that any discussion of weapons, whether real or toy, as well as making shooting gestures, is not acceptable.
I’m not going to get into the debate about guns here. Regardless of its subject, the rule illustrates two problems that we as parents have in setting rules. The first is that this particular rule is overbroad, potentially prohibiting discussions about benign subjects such as superhero movies. On the other hand, if the school makes exceptions for superhero movies or books, the rule is vague and enforcement is arbitrary. Even elementary students have a right to clarity and consistency in rules.
Second, this rule exhibits a woeful ignorance of normal childhood development. Pretend play, which often involves superhero scenarios or imaginative battles, is a common and important aspect of a child's growth. By restricting discussions and play related to weapons, the new rule almost certainly will stifle creativity and imagination.
A much better rule would be a prohibition against threatening speech or gestures. Safety issues are what the school is trying to target. A clear rule focusing on those issues would be much clearer and wouldn’t have the same risk of stifling normal childhood curiosity.
As parents, we need to be certain that our rules address what we really are concerned about. When our kids talk back, can we focus on teaching them appropriate ways to express disagreement, or are we just upset that they disagree with us? If we simply react angrily to the lack of respect, then we have lost the opportunity to teach them appropriate ways to disagree.
Just as the Massachusetts school needs to distinguish between words that are threats and words that make adults uncomfortable, we need to focus our rules on the really important issues in parenting our kids. Frankly, our feelings are rarely one of those really important issues. We have to keep our focus on the lessons our kids need to learn from our rules, not simply what makes our lives easier.