That’s right, “rape tag.”
5th graders at a Minnesota elementary school invented the game, which is like freeze tag, except that you have to be “humped” to be unfrozen (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/parents-forced-to-discuss-rape-with-kids-after-offensive-game-of-tag/article2326116/).
When a parent at the school discovered the game and contacted the school, Principal Bill Sprung took immediate steps to stop the game, increase supervision at recess and inform the parents/guardians. It sounded to me like a textbook example of exactly how to handle a situation like this:
- Stop what needs to be stopped.
- Assess and implement the environmental/institutional changes that are needed
- Communicate with parents and guardians.
However, some parents were apparently unhappy with how Sprung handled the situation. Why? According to Sprung, they were “mainly upset because they had to talk about the ‘sensitive topic’ of rape with their kids.”
Notwithstanding that it was the students, not Sprung, who named the game, the parents’ discomfort is understandable. Even when we know, as Sprung puts it, that “[t]his age level of kids – 10, 11, 12 is a time when kids start to mature; start to experiment. Part of that experimentation is that they do things we wish they wouldn’t have done,” knowing in theory is different than feeling confident about handling our children’s unstoppable development in reality.
As a diversity educator, I’m often asked when it’s “developmentally appropriate” to talk to kids about race, sex, sexuality and class. My answer is usually, “Already.” Research indicates that kids start picking up on and reacting to differences in social identity (that they perceive through physical appearance) during infancy. The question is not whether they see differences, but how they learn to talk (or not) about them. Not surprisingly, learned muteness around adults can lead to precisely the kind of experimentation that Sprung cites as part of normative social development. Knowing just enough about the word “rape” (or “Jap” or “gay” or “hobo”) children may invoke it to excite, provoke or just to learn more about what it means and what they can do with it.
But, of course, just because they’re ready to learn doesn’t mean that we’re ready to teach or to learn more alongside them.
And this is what I’ve come to realize: when someone asks me about the “developmental appropriateness” of talking with children about identity–or, in this case, rape–they’re often telling me something about their own feeling of unreadiness. In order to support children’s development, we need to consider not just their readiness, but the readiness of those adults who, as mentor, role model, guardian or parent, are expected to do some of the talking. And our developmental readiness hinges on practice.
Most of us are not born with an innate ability to say the right thing 100% of the time. But we can learn how to say what we have to say to our children in order to support their growth. So here’s today’s Do It Yourself workshop:
Scenario: Your 5th grade child/student has been playing or observing rape tag at recess. You’ve received Principal Sprung’s letter explaining the game and the school’s response.
- What’s your gut response? (That visceral, not necessarily very adult and articulate 1st reaction.)
- What are your questions about the situation and your child/student’s participation/understanding? What are your assumptions? (Consider any judgments you’ve formed: for example, about people’s intentions, motivation or innocence.)
- What are 3 possible explanations for the game and your child/student’s role in it. (Ex. S/he has no idea what “rape” means and is just playing tag, s/he is uncomfortable with the game and language but doesn’t feel capable of saying s/he doesn’t want to play, s/he likes to shock others with risqué language…)
- What outcome do you hope for when you think about having a conversation with your child/student about rape tag?
- When and where would it be best to have this conversation?
Now, find someone who’s willing to help you practice. That’s right: it’s role play time! Your partner will play a 10 year old, and you play yourself. Then you can switch, to see what it’s like to be in the conversation from your child/student’s point of view.
I’d love to hear and be able to share any thoughts you have on what you could say or do in this situation–and, of course, since all 10 year olds are unique, there’s no 1 right answer, but rather a whole toolbox of possibilities that we can fill up. So feel free to hit me back–and if you have a great “when to say what” scenario to propose, I’d love to hear that, too.