How a strawberry Pop-Tart can teach the lost art of discernment

In the Hotchkiss household, never let it be said that Dad doesn’t at least try to make learning fun. Recently I gathered my children, ages 10 and 8, around my laptop for a quiz – to test that they’re not stupid, and that I’m not crazy.


On the screen were two pictures. I pointed to the first one and asked, “What is that?”

“It’s a Pop-Tart,” they said at the same time.

“Good, good,” I said encouragingly. “Now,” as I pointed to the second picture, “what’s that?”

“It’s a gun,” they both said.

Very good, I replied. Thanks, kids. Now go play.

So. My kids aren’t stupid, and I’m not crazy. We all can tell the difference between a breakfast pastry and a gun.

Guess who can’t – apparently, at least one teacher at Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Md.

Seven-year-old Josh Welch recently was nibbling his strawberry breakfast pastry in school, trying to fashion it into the shape of a mountain. Because that’s what kids do, that’s why.

But as he nibbled, he noticed it was instead starting to look a bit like a handgun. So he did what a lot of spirited 7-year-olds might do. He picked it up like you would hold a gun, and showed it to another kid.

The teacher saw all this and sent Josh to the office. He ended up being suspended for two days for, in the words of an assistant principal, making “inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class.”


THANK GOD Josh didn’t have a semiautomatic cinnamon bun or we’d have a real tragedy on our hands.

I exaggerated about the teacher earlier for effect. Of course the woman can tell the difference between a pastry and a gun. I hope. What she apparently can’t do is correctly assess the difference between a kid innocently cutting up in class and a kid approaching the brink of a violent outburst.

But that’s what’s passing for discipline these days in the topsy-turvy world of school zero-tolerance policies.

That’s how we got a Staten Island, N.Y., 9-year-old sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension in 2010, after school officials found that one of his LEGO figures was holding a 2-inch toy gun.

That’s how we got a Rhode Island 8-year-old’s hat banned from school in 2010. He made the hat as a school project, and decided to make it patriotic. So he put an American flag and a bunch of little plastic Army men on his hat. If you can guess what the little Army men were holding, you can guess why the kid’s hat was banned.


LOOK, SCHOOL security? I get it. My wife is a teacher. My children are pupils. Part of maintaining harmony and happiness in my family obviously relies on schools being safe. Columbine? Newtown? Who wants to see another one of these school tragedies unfold?

“But ‘zero tolerance,’” as The Baltimore Sun rightly editorialized recently, “can’t be allowed to mean ‘zero common sense.’”

Zero-tolerance policies shouldn’t shift responsible adults’ brains into neutral while they quote a rulebook chapter and verse. That’s what’s spawned institutions such as the Transportation Security Administration. Remember those guys from my column last week? I was railing against the TSA’s utter insanity of searching a 3-year-old girl’s wheelchair for security breaches, because security officers were blindly, unthinkingly following “the rules,” whatever they are.

And it’s that kind of brainless enforcement that places a nibbled Pop-Tart on the same destructive level as an actual weapon.

Does it really have to be like that? Must we criminalize the whimsical actions of childhood? Instead of teaching authority figures to unquestioningly follow zero-tolerance rules, can we instead teach them the lost art of discernment?

Discernment is the key that unlocks the door to wisdom and good judgment. Discernment clearly delineates the difference – for children and adults – between actual gun violence and mere childish behavior.


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