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Mixed Messages In Schools

Updated on February 7, 2013

Today's students have a lot to contend with: competitive angst over getting into certain schools, over-programmed schedules bursting with planned activities, and of course, bullying and the threats of violence in the schoolyard.

There's no denying that reports of bullying have increased dramatically in recent years. In some cases, bullying has escalated into violent crimes. Playful hazing of the past has evolved into dangerous and sometimes even sick acts of humiliation or severe injury, even death. It's a real issue that requires real attention and action.

This is not a real gun.  CCL C
This is not a real gun. CCL C | Source

Safety Concerns

The Columbine tragedy and other school shootings have put safety foremost in the minds of school administrators, parents and students. Consequently, there's a strong trend in schools today to disallow and even punish any reference whatsoever to weapons. Discourse on any positive value of guns is discouraged, because that might run at odds with the popular "guns are bad" theme. This stance must present a challenge for history teachers when presenting information on the American Revolution and, well, most all of history. Luckily for them, school is not typically in session on July 4th, freeing teachers from explaining to children how we came to celebrate that day.

Students are also bombarded with other concerns. One is safety at all costs. Many playgrounds are now void of jungle gyms, and the game of tag has been outlawed in many districts. Some schools have gone so far as to ban running at lunch or recess, for fear that Johnny might fall and skin his knee, or that Jane will feel outperformed when another student runs faster than her.

While today's plastic playgrounds in cushy flooring do offer some improvement over yesteryear's collection of metal climbers set in hard asphalt, there are valid arguments that helicopter parents and administrators fearful of lawsuits are robbing today's little snowflakes of learning how to judge and deal with risk.

Which is the greater threat: riding an old-fashioned merry-go-round, or never learning how to deal with risk in childhood? CCL D
Which is the greater threat: riding an old-fashioned merry-go-round, or never learning how to deal with risk in childhood? CCL D | Source

In this effort to stem violence and promote safety, common sense seems to be the popular victim. Young children who bring brightly colored plastic guns to school, obviously toys in their fantastical space-ray gun shapes, get those confiscated in light of a zero-tolerance policy, and the kids end up getting slapped with suspension or even expulsion. Students have been arrested for simply drawing pictures of guns, or, having been relieved of their molded plastic six-shooters, for making a gun shape with their hands and yelling, "Bang, bang!" Parents file lawsuits when their gangly bookworm child trips over his own shoelaces at recess, claiming that the school was at fault for not protecting their child from such a hazard.

It seems the ones having the most difficulty identifying personal responsibility and discerning real life from fantasy are the grown-ups.

Piracy is Bad…Except For When It's Good

Pirates are evil, and therefore bad...except when they're fun, and therefore Lic: MS
Pirates are evil, and therefore bad...except when they're fun, and therefore Lic: MS | Source

And everywhere, anti-piracy themes abound. Messages are constantly pounded in not to copy movies or music for fear of being arrested by the FBI. Rarely does the conversation revolve around selling copies vs. making backup copies for personal use. Meanwhile, students are encouraged to regularly borrow (not purchase) books from the library, and no legal entity seems to have a problem with that kind of file sharing.

Speaking of piracy, real modern-day pirates are indeed wreaking havoc in the Indian Ocean today. Current headlines read of Somali pirates boarding ships and taking owners hostage, sometimes killing them, and stealing the boats and their cargo. It's a very serious matter. Meanwhile, schools across the nation hold special Pirate Days. Students are encouraged to dress like pirates, speak like pirates and basically celebrate everything pirate. There seems to be no recognition or acknowledgement that this flies in the face of all the other messages they're giving kids about how bad pirates and piracy are.

Taking all of that into consideration, is it any wonder students are perplexed at the number of mixed messages sent their way?

There's enough information for students to filter through without having to also try to make sense of mixed messages. CCL C
There's enough information for students to filter through without having to also try to make sense of mixed messages. CCL C | Source

In one particular school, students in a language arts class were instructed to write a story about pirates. But since weapons are forbidden at the school, there could be no mention of guns or swords or weaponry of any kind in the story. Presumably, no mention of violence would be allowed either, given the school's stance on bullying; however, no such directive was included in the writing guidelines.

How effective would these pirates be, these pirates who don't do anything? How would such a story look? Here's one proposal:

The Terrifying Threat of the Seas

Peg-Leg Pierre, the Beast of the Barbary Coast, shot off the sound of a cannon on his MP3 player, amplified by the very large, seaworthy speakers installed on his vessel, the Antagonizer. Malodorous Morgan, over on the nearby Menacing Marauder, knew that this signaled an impending attack. He quickly scrambled to defend his ship and onboard treasures. Lacking weapons of any kind, he pulled out a weathered sheet of paper and a freshly-inked quill, and began writing a strongly-worded letter, thereby being the first person to found principles that would be later used by the United Nations.

Morgan wrote fast and furious, but before he could complete his missive, the Antagonizer had come up alongside the Menacing Marauder and Peg-Leg Pierre had boarded the vessel. He leaped onto the deck (carefully, and while wearing a safety helmet and harness for protection, and only after capping the end of his wooden leg with a well-treaded rubber tip), catching Malodorous Morgan off-guard. Startled, Morgan fumbled and dropped his paper and quill, sending the ink bottle crashing to the ground, splashing glass and black India ink all over the freshly-swabbed deck. Crew mates rushed to the scene to mop up the spill, lest anyone slip and fall and file an OSHA report.

Heedless of the ink danger, Peg-Leg cried out, "Malodorous Morgan! Avast thar, ye swine! Ah'll be takin' that booty of yers! Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!" Morgan knew he meant business, due to the aggravated growl that appended his greeting.

"Not today, me bucko!" retorted Morgan. "Ye'll take not one doubloon from my chest!" Malodorous Morgan stood up straight and tall, bravely daring the brash buccaneer to defy him. He had worked hard for that plunder, recycling bottles and aluminum cans found floating in the sea, earning a respectable wage while supporting green living and helping to protect the environment.

"Scallywag! Ye'll hand it over, or be visiting Davy Jones' locker!! If ye likes underwater touring, that is. I'd not make you walk the plank, as I don't knows yer swimmin' skills, and a fall into that drink might result in your becoming shark bait."

Weaponless; therefore, he must not be a danger. Although that parrot has rather a sharp beak... Lic: MS
Weaponless; therefore, he must not be a danger. Although that parrot has rather a sharp beak... Lic: MS | Source

Malodorous Morgan considered the proposition of swimming with the fishes, and didn't like the prospect much. He had had just about enough of Peg-Leg Pierre's bullying, and was about to go tell on him to the Admiral of the Black, the famed organization of buccaneers. It was then that Morgan remembered he hadn't kept his pirate union dues current, which barred him from lodging a complaint. So, he cunningly took matters into his own hands.

"Ye'll not hornswaggle me, barnacle brain!" Morgan cried. "I knows the secret of the treasure, and ye don't. So there." In truth, the treasure held no secrets, but Peg-Leg didn't know this, and became infuriated by Morgan's needling.

"Then ye leaves me no choice but to use the cat o'nine tails on ye, scurvy dog!" threatened Peg-Leg. Saying this, he quickly reached into his large oilcloth overcoat and pulled out a plush stuffed animal, outfitted with nine tails. It was black. "Thar!! I threatens ye with the bad luck of the black cat o'nine tails!!"

Terror shot through the heart of Malodorous Morgan. Bad luck! How could he combat that? He froze in fear.

In the distance, a seagull cried.

"Ye gots me," Morgan resigned. "Ye've scuttled my crafty strategy, and I knows when I'm beat. The booty is yers."

Peg-Leg laughed loud and menacingly, hands on hips and head thrusted back to the skies. He then bent forward quietly, placing his face right up to Morgan's nose. Morgan could smell Peg-Leg's breath, which was pleasantly minty and fresh, since Peg-Leg conscientiously brushed after every meal. With eyes narrowed, Peg-Leg purred in a sinister voice, "Stealing would be wrong. Perhaps ye can teach me yer trade of recyclin'?"

"Ye drives a hard bargain, picaroon. But I yields to your request. Yer the better brigand; no dismissing that!"

"Nay! I'm no freebooter!" Peg-Leg angrily cried, and stood up straight and indignant. "I'll not be accused of ravaging your intellectual property! Why, that would be piracy! And if I'm anything, I'm anti-piracy. Legitimately-earned pieces of eight will be yours in exchange for your well-earned knowledge."

"Well, shiver me timbers!" the delighted Malodorous Morgan exclaimed. "You ran a rig on me (which is pirate parlance for playing a joke on someone, as I'm sure ye knows)! Well, then, as soon as we reach land, we'll form an LLC partnership and look into IPO prospects. In the meantime, let's celebrate! I'd bring out some grog for us to get three sheets to the wind together, but as this ship is a drug-free zone, there's no alcohol aboard. Luckily, I do have some soda pop that is richly laced with deadly high fructose corn syrup, which I hear is a sweet surprise for the tongue and is socially perfectly acceptable, and therefore not to be viewed as a weapon."

"Aye!" cheered Peg-Leg. "And we can talk all we like of pillaging, kidnapping, even murdering, as long as we do so without bespeaking of weapons!"

"Arrrrrgh!" agreed Malodorous Morgan.

"Arrrrrgh back!" cried Peg-Leg Pierre.

~ The End ~

Cognitive Dissonance

Did it seem odd for this article to begin with an overview of very serious topics, only to dive into a light-hearted humorous story? As this article began, the reader most likely had an expectation that this entire piece would keep a sober tone, addressing important issues of the day. The sudden transition to humor may have seemed not only out of place, but even rude, mocking the seriousness of the topics previously discussed, leaving the reader not knowing what to think of this piece overall. This is the very type of confusing disconnect regularly inflicted on children through mixed messages. And grown-ups run around wondering why their children seem to display signs of ADHD.

Perhaps schools should consider a curriculum including a class on Common Sense 101. First enrollees: school administrators.

© M.S. Ross - All Rights Reserved

- This Just In -

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after composing this article, but prior to publication, this news story was released. Its topic is exactly the same as one concern referred to in this hub; namely, that playgrounds are designed primarily with safety in mind--both the physical safety of children, and lawsuit safety for property owners and school or park administrators--over and above the consideration of what actually serves children best. Ironically, kids are indeed getting hurt in playgrounds today, but more often than not, it's precisely because children haven't previously been exposed to playground opportunities that held any real measure of risk. They're not getting hurt because the equipment is too dangerous; they're getting hurt because the equipment hasn't been risky enough.

Some parents are beginning to realize that failing to learn how to deal with risks, both physical challenges and mental "I think I can" challenges, at a young age renders children incapable of facing and overcoming obstacles as they grow up. Perhaps the next generation of children will be granted more leeway to discover, explore and skin a knee now and then.

UPDATE: Another news story, this from the Washington Post, has now come out, reporting that more schools are rethinking their zero-tolerance discipline stands, and reevaluating the criteria used to reprimand, suspend or expel students from school. Looks like that Common Sense 101 curriculum is starting to be rolled out after all.

- M.S.R.

Mixed Messages in Your Child's School

Some schools designate class time (30 minutes to three hours, several days a week) for students to play games or otherwise pass time in non-instructive activity; these same schools then send home several hours' worth of homework each day. The subtext here seems to be, it's okay to goof off when you're on the clock, so long as you make up for it in your own free time. How does that translate to a work ethic when kids grow up and begin their professional lives?

What mixed messages have you noticed coming from your child's school, and what steps have you taken to address them? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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MS: Used with permission from Microsoft


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    • Miss Mellie profile imageAUTHOR

      M.S. Ross 

      9 years ago

      In the charter school academy where my kids attended last year, my then 3rd grade daughter (reading level: 7th/8th grade) was assigned to the Language Arts Listening Station several times a week. The instructor gave a selection of audio books from which to choose. They were all "Cat In The Hat" and similar level audio books. Needless to say, my kids don't attend that school anymore!

      Incidentally, the "one particular school" I referenced in my article above is that very school my kids attended.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 

      9 years ago from California

      I haven't heard of schools setting aside time for games and the like but I know a boy who told me that he had one hour every day at his middle school that was reading time. He could read anything he wanted, including books way below his reading age. He often spent the time reading books like Captain Underpants. I was really surprised that he was essentially losing an hour of instruction out of a 6 or so hour school day for something that would have been better done at home.

      It would have made far more sense for the school to require all students to either read a challenging book at home or mandate challenging fiction or age-appropriate nonfiction during the school reading time.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Another one of the mixed messages: elementary schools around here seem so anxious to avail themselves of free daily newspaper services (financed by community donations), yet get BALLISTIC when the students actually look at them and find the adult-level topics.

      Sadly, it seems when educators become administrators know the rest.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Very well written and interesting hub, Miss Mellie. I think it really does come down to liability, and the fact that schools and teachers are essentially at risk for anything & everything that happens while kids are on school grounds. As you've discussed, whereas falling off the jungle gym and getting injured might have once been considered by parents a lesson to their child in being more cautious, it's now often seen as a failure of the teacher/school in keeping their child safe (and grounds for a subsequent lawsuit).

      While I was living in Chicago a few years back, we actually once got sued after a 15-year-old snuck into our backyard (fences were not permitted in the area) and onto our trampoline - while we were away, and the trampoline had been covered (he removed the covering) - and badly sprained his ankle. It really is a scary direction we're headed in, and one that far too often seems to teach our children the 'blame game,' rather than any notion of taking responsibility for our actions, and learning from our mistakes.

      In any case, I won't go further into a rant, but really fascinating topic, and I really enjoyed reading this (particularly the story!). Voted way up and interesting.

    • Miss Mellie profile imageAUTHOR

      M.S. Ross 

      9 years ago

      Thanks, sillymathewsgirl. And look, here's yet another piece questioning the validity of "super-safe" playgrounds; this one from the NY Times: "Can a Playground Be Too Safe?"

    • profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California

      A compelling article! And a humorous and insightful piece!! I know, that you know what you are talking about. Well researched, and lived-out in your own life on many levels!! Bring more!

    • Miss Mellie profile imageAUTHOR

      M.S. Ross 

      9 years ago

      Thanks so very much, writeronline. Of course, feel free to link to this article (or any of my articles, for that matter)! Hm, I'll consider the ebook idea. ;)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Good golly Miss Mellie, once again you’ve written a compellingly well-crafted, highly entertaining piece; on a very worthwhile topic. I was engrossed from start to finish.

      Given your very credible observations about today’s parents seeming to keenly embrace the whole idea of shielding their offspring from the realities of life, while failing to notice the genuinely detrimental effects it has on their development, I really think you should publish the pirate story on its own, it’s everything they’re looking for! Find an illustrator to bring some of your wonderful scenes to even more vivid life, and sell it online as ‘the first in a coming wave of e-books for the children of a new generation’. ‘Where looking at pretend life takes the risk out of experiencing real life.’ lol...

      On the topic of mixed messages, your words about the difficulty of “discerning real life from fantasy” resonated with me, in connection with a couple of hubs I recently wrote about the cognitive dissonance (your words again..), between what we, as keen-to-make-money Hubbers, are told by HubPages about what Google is looking for, and what Google (imo) really seeks to find. As I read your article, I also remembered that I’d so far omitted to let you know that, in acknowledgement of your skills and attitudes towards teaching, I’ve referenced you in one of them, and linked to your profile...but I’m happy to delete that if you’re not OK with it.

      Sorry it took coming by and reading this, to jog my memory.

      But I’m glad I did. Up, funny and awesome from me.

    • Miss Mellie profile imageAUTHOR

      M.S. Ross 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for your kind words, RTalloni. Please feel free to link this hub to yours, which I'm looking forward to reading, myself. I rather suspect you might also enjoy my article called "What Do You Mean?" The Power of Symbols -

      If school policies are getting parents to take their children's education more into their own hands, then that's at least one good outcome of the situation. Too many parents have, for too long, left the responsibility of their children's education to the schools, whether public or private.

      I homeschooled my children from the start, until this year, when they attended a charter-run academy. And I must confess...looks like homeschooling may be back in our future this fall.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Good--no, this is great stuff. One mixed message comes in giving young students loads of homework but giving nearly adult students play time after school (football practice, cheerleading practice, etc.)

      "There's enough information for students to filter through without having to also try to make sense of mixed messages" is a quotable quote!

      It seems that common sense departed the minds of those entrusted to teach our country's most valuable resource. Many parents are saying no more, and taking their children's education in hand themselves.

      Would like to link this hub to mine on playing nice and another on children, the hope of our future, if you have no objection. Thanks!

    • Miss Mellie profile imageAUTHOR

      M.S. Ross 

      9 years ago

      It is (sadly) a scary world out there, indeed, marellen. Which is precisely why kids need more solid guidance and less confusion from role models. Inconsistent leadership does not create strong character in children; it teaches them to waffle on subjects and be unsure of themselves. Thanks for your comments.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      its tough to raise a child in our society and I do feel for the schools because so many parents have sued for frivolous lawsuits, that the schools are terrified to inforce anything. Parents need to be more proactive with their kids and explain things in detail more now then in the past. Regarding guns....when my son (26 now) was young playing with guns was a no-no....everyone frowned on it. He just put his two fingers together and went bang-bang. I'm sure he learned that on TV. You can't and shouldn't shield your kids from everything but its a scary world out there. Parents need to keep their eyes and ears opened all the time. Good and informative hub...


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