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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in