“Charlie, Charlie, Can We Play?”… No

Religious indoctrination in public schools can occur in unexpected, indirect ways. That’s what I learned when I picked up my fifth grader from school on May 29th After she got into the car, she casually mentioned the school counselor had been going into each of the classrooms to warn the students against playing a game called “Charlie Charlie.” Neither of us had heard of the game, so when we got home we Googled it together. The headline of an article on Christianity Today (the top hit on the Google search), warns that the “game poses real danger – Vatican exorcist warns against summoning demons.” The article reads like a piece from The Onion. My 11-year-old rolled her eyes and laughed, but I couldn’t bring myself to brush it off so lightly.

I further spoke with my daughter, and a friend of hers, about what the counselor had been saying specifically. They confirmed that the counselor had warned, “The school will give automatic write-ups to kids who play Charlie Charlie. Not only will they get write-ups, recess will be taken away, there will be after school detention, no field day, and other school privileges will be removed from the student.”

Deciding to reserve judgement until I could speak to the counselor myself, I called her the following Monday morning to ask for confirmation if what I’d heard was true. If so, I wanted to hear the rationale for punishment, whether it is because it is distracting from instructional time, or is it due to the nature of the game itself. I intended to ask whether the consequences would be the same if the kids were to play it during recess or if they played some other game like tic-tac-toe.

After describing the viral nature of the game and its basis in the occult, the counselor explained that, “Some kids have tried to play it at recess and we have made it so that it’s not allowed to be played here whatsoever as it’s not appropriate and some kids have been impacted. It makes them worry and get scared. It has scared quite a few of our kids. The school’s position is it’s not to be played and is to be reported if any kid sees it being played. Fun privileges this week are up for being lost if people choose to play the game.”

I told her it seemed odd to me that kids could be punished for playing a make believe game and that it seems like a good teaching opportunity to discuss how this is not real or anything to be afraid of.

“Some families take these things very seriously though,” she answered, uneasily.

I asked her, “Does it make sense that kids whose families don’t believe in make believe can be punished because other kids’ parents think it’s real?”

She replied, “We also don’t allow Ouija boards for the same reasons. It’s what’s best for the social and emotional health of the children.”

The school administration’s reaction to a silly game of fantasy and horror is appalling. A golden opportunity to teach children skepticism and critical thinking skills was missed. They could have turned it into a real-life lesson in psychology or conducted a physics experiment. Instead, they chose to pre-emptively side with a potential handful of credulous parents to the detriment of young, impressionable children, ostensibly, in the interest of their “social and emotional health.” Many parents don’t share in such irrational beliefs and don’t appreciate that the other children are taught to respect; this gave credibility to nonsense. That is hardly what is in their best interest. Schools should be teaching kids lessons within the framework of reality, not imparting legitimacy to ghost stories and parlor tricks.

I understand that school leadership has concerns about incurring the wrath of religious parents if they tell the children, “There are no such things as demons.” Sadly, it’s true that such parents might sue the school district for overriding their right to inflict their beliefs on their children. However, that doesn’t excuse letting those concerns affect the innocent kids of parents who haven’t instilled belief in magic. Especially in the case of very young children, hearing an adult authoritatively warn all of the kids to not play a certain game, when combined with what the children would inevitably be saying to each other about the game, could cause anxiety and panic to arise in an otherwise emotionally secure child untainted by superstition. If social and emotional wellbeing is truly an objective, the school would do better to debunk boogiemen, rather than instruct kids to run away from them.

Jennifer Goulet
President, Tri-City Freethinkers
Coordinator, Mid-Columbia Coalition of Reason