Thanks to Sara Grier for this contribution. You can read more of her work on her blog: www.newpaththerapy.com
The recent spate of shootings in malls, schools, on the streets and in theaters has everyone from psychiatrists to mothers and fathers wondering and worrying. Questions frequently include; what is happening in society that this is occurring, what is happening with our children that this is occurring, and what can be done to curb the tide of the seemingly endless episodes of violence by youth in the United States. Processes to deal with troubled children range from alternative schools to mainstreaming, from medication to therapy. Another such remedy has been more of a Band-Aid than one that truly addresses any deeper issues is the so-called “zero tolerance” policy that has been applied to schools, community centers, and most places public and private. This involves bringing the hammer down on any child that engages in “expressions of aggression”. These, of course, are judged subjectively by adults, both trained and not. It can range from suspension for true violence (hitting, threatening, displaying weapons) to some pretty liberal interpretations; one such example is an elementary school student being suspended for pointing a chicken tender in the (somewhat) shape of a gun and saying “pow pow”.
The first thing that should be noted is this: Both sets of actions earned the same general consequence. The question is this; is that reasonable? Does a 2nd grader, in a flight of imagination, really rise to the level of a 15 year old bringing a switch blade to school or a middle schooler writing a threatening letter to a classmate. Does this not de-value, if you will, the more extreme acts to treat them the same as a child make-believing a rifle out of a tree branch while playing cowboys and Indians on the school playground?
What kind and amount of aggression is normal to childhood development? After all, aggression is, to some degree, part of the natural state of humans. Aggression may very well have been designed by evolution for our very survival. So, if this theory is accepted, by attempting to quash all things aggressive in childhood are we not forcing children to develop in an unnatural state? Aggressive play is observed in the young of almost all species. It is during this play that the young learn what is acceptable in regards to aggression and what is not. We are not giving our own children in our own species the same learning opportunities. Instead, we have designed an artificial system that attempts to completely repress a natural part of the human make-up. When the aggression does finally have the opportunity to bubble to the surface untested and unabated, the result can be explosive. These children and teens are now expressing their aggression without any guidance, teaching, or understanding of social expectations. Aggression, like most things in early human development, must be recognized and guided-not repressed and ignored. To continue to do so will remain at our own peril.