Preparing our children for profoundly unlikely events would be one thing if that preparation had no downside. But in this case, our efforts may exact a high price. Time and resources spent on drills and structural upgrades to school facilities could otherwise be devoted to, say, a better science program or hiring more experienced teachers. Much more worrying: School-preparedness culture itself may be instilling in millions of children a distorted and foreboding view of their future. It’s also encouraging adults to view children as associates in a shared mission to reduce gun violence, a problem whose real solutions, in fact, lie at some remove from the schoolyard.
We’ve been down this road before. In an escalating set of preparations for nuclear holocaust during the 1950s, the “duck and cover” campaign trained children nationwide to huddle under their desk in the case of a nuclear blast. Some students in New York City were even issued dog tags, to be worn every day, to help parents identify their bodies. Assessments of this period suggest that such measures contributed to pervasive fear among children, 60 percent of whom reported having nightmares about nuclear war.
Decades later, a new generation of disaster-preparedness policies—this time geared toward guns rather than nuclear weapons—appear to be stoking fear once again. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Foundation determined that, despite the rarity of such events, 57 percent of American teenagers worry about a shooting at their school. This comes at a time when children are already suffering from sharply rising rates of anxiety, self-mutilation, and suicide. According to a landmark study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, 32 percent of 13-to-18-year-olds have anxiety disorders, and 22 percent suffer from mental disorders that cause severe impairment or distress. Among those suffering from anxiety, the median age of onset is 6.
Active-shooter drills reflect a broad societal misunderstanding of childhood, one that features two competing images of the child: the defenseless innocent and the powerful mini-adult. On the one hand, we view children as incredibly vulnerable—to hurt feelings, to non-rubberized playground surfaces, to disappointing report cards. This view is pervasive, and its consequences are now well understood: It robs children of their agency and impedes their development, and too often prevents them from testing themselves either physically or socially, from taking moderate risks and learning from them, from developing resilience.
But on the other hand, we demand preternatural maturity from our children. We tell them that with hockey pucks and soup cans and deep reservoirs of courage, they are capable of defeating an evil that has resisted the more prosaic energies of law-enforcement officers, legislators, school superintendents, and mental-health professionals. We ask them to manage not the everyday risks that they are capable of managing—or should, for their own good, manage—but rather the problems they almost by definition cannot.