When do children come to understand the power of their words? Until they do, how can you hold them responsible?
That’s the central question asked by a report published in England on Wednesday, which found that children as young as 4 are being punished in school for calling other students names that are seen as slurs.
A civil liberties group reviewed school discipline reports and found that 20,000 elementary school students and 14,000 secondary school students in Britain are “reported” for racism or homophobia each year, under a 10-year-old law intended to monitor hate speech in schools. Most recently, eight nursery schoolers were reported for racism and one for homophobia.
As reporter Sarah O’Grady wrote in The Express:
The pupils are being disciplined for calling one another names like “chocolate bar” or “gaylord.” When questioned, most of the children admitted they did not know what the words mean.
Examples of the kinds of playground spats between 5-year-olds that teachers are forced to report include trivial incidents, such as one child calling another “milky way” or “broccoli head.”
Homophobic incident forms show a boy being reported for saying “this work’s gay.”
The authors of the report warn that, while probably well intentioned, “these systems are based on a profound misunderstanding of children.” Kids call each other names. Cruelty of any sort should be dealt with on the playground, critics of the rules tell Ms. O’Grady, but putting certain words into a separate, black-mark-on-your-permanent-record category is likely to cause more problems than it solves.
“Why should it be necessary to explain to 5- or 6-year-olds the meaning and implications of homophobia?” one educator asks in an editorial accompanying Ms. O’Grady’s article. “Or racism for that matter? Could they possibly understand anyway?”
There is no such national reporting requirement in United States schools, yet American parents still struggle with out-of-the-mouths-of-babes dilemmas. One reader told me about her son, in fourth grade at the time, whose class was studying the Civil War. “You look like a slave,” he told a black classmate, and was marched down to the principal’s office for a chat. He came home confused; he thought he had just been stating the facts. His classmate, in turn, came home upset.
One would assume that the intent of the law was not to censure preschoolers for calling classmates “broccoli head.” On the other hand, schools have seen the very real and devastating effects of classmates wielding words like weapons. So what should schools do about name calling? Are the same words different when they come from a 7-year-old? A 17-year-old? Where’s the line?