Orlando Sentinel

Put real discipline back in the schools

By Kathleen Parker
of The Sentinel Staff
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on April 12, 2000

By today's zero-tolerance standards of child's play, my brother and I both should have been sent to the electric chair decades ago. In fact, every child in our neighborhood and at school would qualify today as a juvenile delinquent at least, a potentially homicidal maniac on average.

We played war; we dug trenches and foxholes; we screamed and cried, raided and rioted, bombed each other with rotten grapefruit, torpedoed with oranges, fake-killed and fake-died, fell from trees, crashed bikes and wiped out on gravelly roads.

We pillaged and plundered until the sun set and a dozen fathers whistled time for supper.

We didn't die from these activities, nor did we kill anyone else. It is more likely that these dastardly playtime drills -- followed by parentally invoked rituals -- kept our little riotous souls in check.

Instead of hurting people, we pretended to. Instead of suppressing anger and frustration, we acted out confusing emotions in innocent play. Instead of toying with real guns, we cocked our fingers and shot imaginary bullets.

Just like the four kindergartners at Wilson Elementary School in Sayreville, N.J., who were suspended from school a few weeks ago for aggressive behavior. For pointing fingers and shouting "bang" at their playmates in a playground game of cops-and-robbers, four boys ages 5 and 6 were deemed dangerous and sent home for three days.

The lunatics don't have to take over the asylum anymore because apparently we've all lost our minds.

To the relief of the few thinking adults hiding in bunkers here and there, the school's action prompted some protest, though not nearly enough. The American Civil Liberties Union -- often estranged from common sense -- rallied to protect the boys' rights to free speech. A few child development experts expressed outrage.

But a discomforting number of parents applauded the school's response, saying the boys' behavior scared some of the other children. In the telling words of one mother: "You've got to teach your kids to watch what they say, especially in school."

Back in my '50s 'hood, no child would have dared admit being scared of other children playing what was then normal. But today is different, we can't help noticing. Children carry real guns to school; children kill and wound other children in what used to be a safe environment.

However, I would like to say as loudly as possible, today is different in other ways too. I'm not talking about the availability of guns. Most of us World War II babies had guns and knew how to shoot without missing. I'm not talking about violent media, either. We watched many a cowboy or Indian cruelly dispatch an enemy.

What's different is that our parents and teachers worked together without undue interference from bureaucrats, social workers and lawyers. A kid who misbehaved in school was dealt with promptly, first by the teacher and then by the dads who whistled at dinner time.

Today we've emasculated teachers and evicted fathers. Most of the boys who've recently carried guns to school had histories that were ignored largely because we don't allow teachers and administrators to "handle" the bad apples. Instead we leave them rotting in the barrel until someone gets hurt. Or, as in this case, we overreact to innocent play.

Our confusion might be eased if we put real discipline back in schools and fathers back in homes. Then might we relax and let the good boys play.

Kathleen Parker's column also appears Sunday in the Sentinel's Insight section. Mail: The Orlando Sentinel, MP-72, P.O. Box 2833, Orlando, Fla. 32802-2833. E-mail:

Posted Apr 13 2000 9:35AM

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