I remember, as a child in Singapore, playing Cowboys and Indians with the other kids in the neighbourhood. Kids of all colours. Kids of expatriates from all over the world. Kids of amahs, cooks and gardeners. Debate was fierce as to who would be the whom. Cowboy or Indian. A child claiming Indian heritage, no matter he or she was from the sub-continent and not the United States, and therefore eligible for an automatic right to feathers had no advantage over a pale-faced child from England, Germany or Australia. There were pluses and minuses to both of course. Feathered headdresses were always a favourite, but so too a toy gun. Oftentimes the sheer exuberance of shouting out to the accompaniment of the pop from the pistol, “bang, bang, you’re dead” would win the day for whoever was loudest.
It was an guiltless time of innocent play. Children being children. We spent our afternoons, freed from school at lunch time, outdoors rampaging over immaculately mowed lawns, through meticulously trimmed hedges, in and out of gardens brimming with colour from hibicus, frangipani, bougainvillea and orchids. We tumbled, we argued, we laughed and we shot each other. Whether with toy bows and arrows or guns, or those having been manufactured from twigs and branches. It was all in the open.
A time before children disappeared indoors. Driven by safety concerns. Many valid. But we have lost something. We’ve lost that guiltless time of innocent play. Where parents expected to see their children only as the sun went down, or the hunger pangs became too great to ignore.
Many of our children now have amazing hand and eye coordination, honed by hours of video games, by texting, by being indoors. Alone. The lessons of childhood play, where we learn to give and take, to compromise way before we know what that word means, is lost in many places, to many children.
And as I watch the story unfold from Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the scene of yet another campus killing spree, I feel beyond sad. Almost beyond angry.
We are failing our children.
They are growing up with televisions spewing shows of ever-increasing violence, often shown well before the watershed of a child’s bedtime, if indeed they have one. Mobile phones negate the need for face-to-face communication. Our children are losing the ability to read another person. Emojis take the place of feelings. Instead of a joke, or silly event, sending a group of children into a helpless and contagious fit of the giggles, ‘lol’ or ‘happy face’ appear on the screen. There are no sounds of fun, just the jingle chosen to tell them another message has arrived.
The academic year has just started in the US, and so far there has been a student killed at Sacramento City College, California; two people shot, one of whom died, at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas; followed the next day by a student being shot and killed at Savannah State University in Georgia. Today that number jumped by another 13, with 20 also injured at the Umpqua shooting. It is only the 1st of October.
President Obama tells us his inability to get greater gun controls passed is the greatest disappointment of his presidency. One has to wonder what it will take to get the vociferous voices of the strident American right to see the murder of our children, often at the hands of people only just out of childhood themselves, is a result of too few gun controls. Many are in the thrall of the National Rifle Association who feeds the belief of a large swathe of the United States, that gun control is tantamount to taking away their civil liberties. Their 2nd Amendment Rights.
No one asking for that. The right to bear arms is ingrained in the American psyche, not to mention the Constitution. But sensible people, both Republican and Democratic, are merely asking for more stringent safeguards to make it harder for those intent on evil to get their hands on a gun, or in some cases, many guns.
We are failing our children.
Perhaps we should worry less about political correctness. Whilst not advocating a return to corporal punishment, perhaps we should allow a teacher to discipline unruly behaviour without fear of retribution. Perhaps we parents need to take a firmer stand on what our children watch, on how much time they spend alone in their bedrooms with their computers and cell phones. Ready prey for trolls, and cyber bullying from other children, and sadly also some adults, all hiding behind an avatar.
We need to have the courage to stand up and say no more to the fear-mongering tactics of organizations like the NRA, and yes to more gun control.
But perhaps also we need to allow our children the space to learn, not just through supervised play, how to read another person’s emotions. How to empathize. Our children need to know the difference between playing Cowboys and Indians, and real violence. That “bang, bang, you’re dead” is forever when you’re grown up.
Oct 4th Update – Umpqua 10 dead, 7 injured