Three first-graders in Anchorage, Alaska, are in a fair bit of trouble after their plans to poison a classmate by slipping silica gel packets into their lunch were foiled by another student. The three students — all girls — supposedly hoarded away those little packets that say “Do Not Eat” from their seaweed snacks, hoping to open them and spike another child’s lunch, with the ultimate goal of killing the other kid.
There are a lot of “fortunatelys” in this particular story. Fortunately a fourth student heard the girls discussing their plan and told a teacher. Fortunately that teacher took action immediately. Fortunately silica gel isn’t actually toxic, and fortunately all three girls were suspended and may face expulsion for their misdeed.
However, there are a lot of unfortunate things packed into this sordid tale as well, and that begins with the fact that three kids just this side of circle time and coloring sheets wanted to kill a classmate.
That children play at violence and even death isn’t a shocker or necessarily a bad thing. We all were children once, and we all probably played stick guns or poison tea parties. But the difference is that no matter how dark the material, kids generally understand that this is fantasy. In the end, all the “dead” kids will pull a Lazarus, and everyone will go back inside to work on times tables or spelling words. Everyone remains friends, and everyone remains very much alive.
But that isn’t what this was. This is arguably more insidious.
Between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, the concept of death makes the leap from abstract to concrete, and children begin to understand that death is permanent. They may even display a certain amount of morbid fascination with what happens to the body after death, and as empathy develops, kids tend to concern themselves with others’ grief in the event of a death. And that’s precisely why this is that much more disturbing. Because the idea of killing isn’t one of “I want you to go away,” the way it might be for a preschooler. It is very much “I want you to die.”
Even that wouldn’t be so bad — kids think and say genuinely disturbing things all the time — but for the fact that they actually took steps in that direction. They plotted. They pulled silica packets and held on to them. And while the biggest danger that their classmate would have faced had they actually ingested the silica gel is aspiration and not toxicity, the girls didn’t know that. As far as they were concerned, their classmate was in real danger. From them.
It’s hard to know what to say or do in a situation like this. While death is very much a concrete concept, the areas of the brain that understand long-term consequences and full-on empathy really aren’t. So it’s not easy to demonize these girls to the extent of hoping they’re locked up and the key is thrown out. They are children, after all, and we have no idea what other dynamics are at play. Was one child more keen on the idea of offing another, and did the other two trail along for approval? Were they relentlessly bullied and hoping to make it stop once and for all? Would they have actually done the deed? We just don’t know, and we’re glad we don’t, because that means the teachers and school handled the entire thing stupendously and proactively.
But on the other hand, it’s entirely inexcusable. It also speaks to how poorly the three girls understood the concept of conflict resolution, in that there are other ways to deal with someone you don’t want to be around, that stop miles short of killing them.
It’s interesting too that they would choose poison as their vehicle for violence, since poison has long been considered a woman’s weapon, at least apocryphally. The reason for this is that it’s considered to be conniving and cowardly, traditionally in line with how female conflict resolution is perceived.
That’s largely because girls are socialized to be nonconfrontational and covert in their conflicts with peers. And therein lies at least part of the rub. It’s possible these girls went straight to this “solution” because they just never learned a not-heinous way to peer mediate. But even that is generous; it’s not hard to assume that the second part of the problem is how loath we are to talk to kids about death.
Death is sad, death is scary, and we think that avoiding the topic or speaking nebulously about it will protect kids from that reality. But the problem with this is that if you can’t tell a child that death is awful and permanent, then you can’t tell them with any sense of sincerity that killing people is so far beyond OK that by the time you’re even considering it, you’re in deep doo-doo.
We need to be able to do both: encourage all kids, but especially girls, that conflict resolution is done best in clear, open words and not dastardly sidestepping plots. And we need to not just hope that our kids know that taking a life is wrong — we need to know for sure by telling them so, in no uncertain words, that it is.