Last week, 14 year-old Ahmed Mohamed made a clock, brought it to school to show his teacher, and was handcuffed, arrested and suspended. The child was wearing a NASA shirt, hopes to attend MIT and is Muslim. The family has lived in their Texas home for 30 years. Ahmed’s Sudanese father said, “I am grateful to the United States of America,” after the huge outcry of public support. This has included President Obama calling his creation “cool” and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg saying such a child deserves “applause” not punishment.
Two days ago, I found a piece that listed 14 controversial reasons why children were suspended. This included a 9-year old girl shaving her head in support of her friend with cancer and a 6-year-old boy kissing the hand of his companion and being accused of sexual harassment.
Psychological sequelae can occur if children are falsely accused. Humiliation, a bottom-falling-out feeling, fear, depression and cynicism can supplant motivation, trust, optimism and confidence. Morality is muddled in the mind of a growing child if self-expression/generosity/creativity is treated as criminal and thoughtless protocol is seen as ethical. Naturally resilient children can survive and some with strong support might thrive, but those that wilt, withdraw and wonder about their worthiness can end up scarred.
Considering the whole person, the specific motivation, character and history as well as the single action is protective for all. If a young being has a pattern of conscience, dedication and integrity, but entered the wrong place at the wrong time or made a minor slip at a stressful moment, it seems prudent to let this play in. I have been privy to cases where one minor infraction resulted in suspension but a pattern of major transgressions was overlooked. The first teen admitted wrongdoing and displayed remorse and the second lied, apparently along with his parents. I could not help but wonder if family money played a part in the way things were handled.
As Harvard professor Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst and and author of Identity Youth and Crisis, explains, the task of a young teen is to establish identity, which includes personal morality as well as aspiration. Teachers, administrators, parents and peers influence beliefs and “ego ideals” or inner images of reachable heights based on self- knowledge. If “superiors” are righteous, rigid, unthinking and punishing and a child is sensitive and able, this poor “fit” can cause painful struggles.
Children who consistently violate others may learn best via strong consequences, but those with deep sensitivity can be devastated by wrongful or severe punishment. They might suffer intolerable shame at a singular slip up.
Years ago, a well-loved, highly accomplished, hardworking teen, Teddy Graubard, jumped to his death from a window at the Dalton School in NYC. “Worn out and apparently unable to imagine other options, he cheated by accessing files he must have loaded onto the laptop earlier that morning.” Even if a school is forgiving, children with a strong conscience will punish themselves with internal self-beatings. One cause of suicide is the need or wish to rid oneself of relentless, excruciating self-criticism.
A person with great humility, integrity, and carefulness might practice brutal self-criticism if they make a mistake. A nurse treating royal Kate Middleton took a prank call from a DJ, revealed information, realized her error, berated herself, apologized profusely and killed herself three days later. She left a husband and young children. People who are prone to shame are at risk. A recent incident in our local public school involved several children accused of hacking into the computer system. Though word has it that some were just present and others were perpetrators, it seems that severe punishments were doled out for all, even those with a clear record of conscientiousness.
Showing lenience towards those with strong “superegos” models forgiveness and mitigates the shame. Awareness of who has a strong super ego (conscience) and who does not assists in effective intervention. People make mistakes in morality as well as math. By tailoring the teaching to the individual we promote true growth.
Righteous rule following when bending is an option is a recipe for disaster. Understanding context and the individual child protects all. If an inventive, empathic, conscientious or expressive child is driven out, the opportunity to embrace difference and celebrate ingenuity is lost. “Ahmed's father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, said his son is a wizard at electronics, repairing the family's clocks, phones and electricity. Ahmed said he has built a go-kart.” Ahmed will be transferring schools.