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The Curious Case Of A Gifted Boy Comforted By War Games

In a seaside town in the Netherlands, an 11-year-old boy creates a private war zone in his everyday environment. What should his parents do?

Boys will be boys
Boys will be boys
Lorenz Wagner

HOEK VAN HOLLAND — There’s that Timon again, skulking around. The kindergarten teacher spots him through the window, and her eyes follow his movements.

The boy is the talk of the whole neighborhood, she says. The look of him, with his camouflage military clothing, black face mask, gun in hand. He’s here, not Kabul. Here is Hoek van Holland, a peaceful Netherlands sea town near Rotterdam, with a drug store, a petting zoo, and a ferry that comes in from the UK every morning and evening.

The little boy is coming nearer and nearer. He makes a hand gesture that suggests he’s motioning to other soldiers to keep him covered. The kindergarten kids have their noses pressed against the window panes. This is fun! The teacher doesn’t think so. She runs outside, but the boy has already gone, disappeared into some bushes. Timon is 11 years old. What kind of child is this, and who are his parents?

That Timon is unlike other children is something his parents noticed when he was barely three years old. They were driving to Rotterdam, and Timon was sitting in the back looking out the window, jabbering away. At a traffic light, he uttered the word vloerbedekking. His parents were puzzled. The word means rug. They weren’t quite sure what to think, until they noticed the sign above a storefront. Their son wasn’t jabbering. He was reading.

Many parents would have been overjoyed at this. Their son was special! But Petra and Peter Persoon were silent. They knew what this meant. Timon’s uncle, his mother’s brother, had been able to read that early too. “And his life,” says Petra Persoon, “was a terrible struggle.”

Gifted but isolated

Highly gifted, the doctors said. Soon afterwards, Timon began to feel strange in his surroundings. He was different from other children. Instead of playing, he spent his time on numbers and reading. If he painted pictures, he tore them up before he finished them. He didn’t understand jokes or teasing. After their car broke down, his dad told Timon he was going to replace it with a tank, which the boy took literally. Timon was bitterly disappointed when the tank turned out to be an Opel.

He would tell his parents that there was too much in his head. To maintain mental order, he had to plan everything. His parents could never say, “It’s a beautiful sunny day. Let’s go to the beach!” Something like that would anger him terribly. And no one could sit in “his” place in the car. There were tears and screaming if another child only counted to 18 instead of 20 during a game of hide and seek.

Other children started to think of Timon as stupid. And teachers didn’t know what to do about his habit of sticking his hand up before they’d even finished asking the question. So they left Timon to his own devices. They didn’t call on him anymore. They punished him. The child who had started out feeling alienated was now also feeling lonely. His parents would often look out the window and see Timon sitting alone in the garden after running away from school.

Then one day, a chubby neighborhood kid slightly older than Timon came along wearing an army jacket and asked him if he wanted to play. That was two years ago.

Soldiering on

The retreat from the kindergarten war zone was a success. Neither the teacher nor his enemy — Mirco, Timon’s 10-year-old brother, chewing strawberry gum and armed with what is supposed to be a fully automatic carbine — had been able to capture him. Then there was Lidianne, his 6-year-old sister, who wears braids and holds a stuffed tiger wearing an army scarf under her arm. Tough opponents.

Should Timon and his men not go and get some additional weaponry in the arsenal (garage)? Along with roller skates and a deep fryer, also stocked here are a sniper rifle, a fully automatic carbine, a machine gun, a Browning, a Thompson — 26 weapons all told, and all home-made. There are also an anti-tank rocket launcher, hand grenades, desert camouflage, helmets, gas masks and a defibrillator, all necessary in a war. Today’s job is to get the enemy’s flag away from them.

Timon’s parents were overjoyed when he found his soldier friends. They would have preferred it if the friends had been non-military — a soccer team, for example. In any case, they didn’t buy him any toy weapons. If he wanted weapons, they said, he’d have to craft them himself, out of wood. Doing something with one’s hands, the psychologists had told them, clears the head.

The therapy of creativity

His dad showed Timon how to use a saw, and the boy went on the Internet, printed out pictures of weapons, and then proceeded to fashion toy pistols and carbines that amazed everybody. From then on, he dressed in green and threw himself into his war games, which suited his lightly autistic compulsion: orders and obedience, firm rules. He led the games himself so perfectly that it made his parents uneasy.

It made Petra Persoon think of the Columbine massacre and all the other school shootings. And what would the neighbors think? During World War II, Hoek van Holland was part of the German Atlantic Wall. Many old people here had terrible memories from the war. “We didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” she says.

But the games were doing Timon so much good. Day after day, he played outdoors. His cheeks got some color, he laughed and talked more, and made one wooden weapon after another. There were so many of them he couldn’t carry all of them himself, so miraculously he let neighborhood kids play with them. They were curious about his doings, and soon he had companions. The whole area with its hedges and small gardens had been turned into a war zone.

A social trigger

Timon is the general here. And he makes more of an effort now to be nice to other children. He needs them to play with, because it’s much better when five kids play together than playing alone. When anybody is shot down, he rescues them with his first aid kit. And he forgives them when they leave the trenches for snack or fudge when they’re counting.

Timon’s parents buy him genuine army trousers and helmets. They’re right to support their son in this way, says Michael Wolf, a psychologist at the Center for Highly Gifted Children in Cologne. He’s not afraid that Timon will grow up to be a perpetrator, although he says it does give him the creeps when Timon wears a balaclava. People who go on killing sprees, says Wolf, are loners and almost always isolated. Timon, on the other hand, saved himself from isolation with his games.

Things are even going better in school. The other kids tease him less, and the teachers are including him more. Now, after the other kids answer questions, he gets to say if they answered right or not. He even plays a soldier in the school play. “Since he’s been conducting war outdoors, we’ve had peace indoors,” says his mother. There are just two things at which they adamantly draw the line: no weapons in the house, and no, they can’t replace the Opel with a camo-colored jeep.

“We know that some people don’t understand us here,” they say. But what to do? They have other problems, like what Mirco and Lidianne could soon be getting up to. They’re both highly gifted too.

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