The growing number of athletes who kneel during the national anthem raises moral and societal questions which weigh respect for the American flag against the rights it represents.
When it’s done by a youth football team under the eye of its adult coach, kneeling before the flag raises yet another question: Do 8-year-olds even have the ability to understand the issues against which they are demonstrating?
Dr. Diana Jacobs, psychology professor and department chair at Lindenwood University-Belleville, says it is “highly unlikely.”
“At 8 years old, kids are not capable of abstract thought and fully understanding the layers of symbolic representation that’s involved,” she said. “They may not understand what it means to take a knee during the national anthem or what it means to place a hand over your heart during the national anthem.
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“They understand things like fairness on a more concrete basis — ‘he got more cake than me and that’s not fair.’ They also have a concrete understanding of kindness — “we should be nice to people.’”
Last week at Belleville’s Citizen’s Park, a team 8-year-old football players sponsored by the Cahokia Quarterback Club took a knee during the national anthem prior to a game against the Belleville Little Devils.
Video of their demonstration has been posted by media outlets nationally, drawing wide-ranging reaction in social media. Some defend their right to free speech, while some argued the act is disrespectful of veterans and those who died in military service.
Still others criticized coach Orlando “Doc” Gooden for going beyond the basics of three-point stance and leading children toward his political stance.
“Do 8 year old kids understand why they are kneeling or just doing what the adults are doing?” Donna M. Peterson asked on the BND Facebook comment thread.
Without judging the actions of the team and its coach, Dr. Trisha Prunty, a neuroscientist at Lindenwood-Belleville, said the concerns of commenters like Paterson carry scientific weight.
“To assume children at 8 years of age have the ability to understand all the nuances of these sorts of issues is absurd,” Prunty said. “They won’t possess the higher-order reasoning to do that until much later.”
That’s not a reflection of a child’s morality or their family’s values. It’s physiological, Prunty says.
The human brain matures from the back, where basic sensory functions are controlled, to the front, where problem solving and reasoning occur. The last piece of the puzzle to fall in the place is in the prefrontal cortex, which manages reasoning against emotion and impulse.
This is where people make judgments between their actions, their deeper meaning, and the possible consequences of them.
Prunty cautions that brain development is influenced by myriad factors as unique to each individual as their fingerprints — both genetics and environmental influences are factors. But, generally, full brain maturity doesn’t occur until the mid-20s.
That’s why it’s unlikely any 8-year-old child would have the physiological capability to understand complex social issues and rationalize a need for protest.
“The big thing is we have a prefrontal cortex that develops well into our adulthood. We are still very concrete in our thinking well into our teens,” Prunty said. “We can’t even think about and fully reason hypothetical situations until we’re 12.
“When it comes to understanding the symbolism of standing for the national anthem and all that is behind it, the human brain at age 8 still has a long way to go.”
To assume children at 8 years of age have the ability to understand all the nuances of these sorts of issues is absurd.
Dr. Trisha Prunty, a neuroscientist at Lindenwood-Belleville
That doesn’t mean there’s no appropriate way to discuss the news of the day with children.
It is important, however, to understand the limitations of a child’s reasoning so that the response is age appropriate, said Dr. Christine Mitchell-Endsley, a certified school psychologist at Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative.
“Instead of launching into a detailed explanation of all its intricacies, explore what they are really asking you,” Mitchell-Endsley said. “We know that abstract thinking doesn’t develop until later in life. An 8-year-old probably just wants to the reassurance that he is safe.”
Gooden said the youth football players on the Junior Comanches initiated discussion of protests against the not-guilty verdict in the trial of former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley. Stockley, a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School, was accused of killing Anthony Lamar Smith following a suspected drug deal and car chase and aquited by a circuit court judge last Friday.
With the approval of the parents, he said the team made the collective decision to stage their own demonstration by take a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” Sunday.
“I feel like once a child shows interest in a topic, you have to talk to them and teach them what you can,” he told the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 18.
Gooden said he made it clear to his players that he did not support the violence or acts of vandalism that accompanied some of the demonstrations in St. Louis.