Let Boys be Boys: Play-Fighting May Actually Be Good for Kids
Early this month, a six-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, was suspended from school after he pointed his finger like a gun and said, "pow." In a letter to his parents, school officials described the incident as one in which their son "threatened to shoot a student."
In one way, this reaction is understandable. After the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, seeing any sort of gunplay at school would be, on a gut level, distressing. This sort of reaction certainly has historical precedent: in 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog pulled all toy guns from its pages.
But, beyond visceral reactions—exclamations of distaste at child behavior that uncomfortably resonates with tragedy—does pretend violence perpetuate real violence?
Not necessarily. According to Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and the founder and director of the National Institutes of Play, "Play can act as a powerful deterrent, even an antidote to prevent violence. Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization."
But parents and teachers—like the teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland—are often not inclined to see it that way."Teachers…often see normal rough and tumble play behavior such as hitting, diving, wrestling, (all done with a smile, between friends who stay friends), not as a state of play, but one of anarchy that must be controlled."
In a study of adults who had committed violent crimes, including the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho, Brown discovered that their childhoods had been marked not by violent play but, more strangely, by a lack of play: the very thing that helps people, especially little people, work through conflict and aggression safely and productively.
An adult may see a kid wield a thumb-and-forefinger "gun" and think of Adam Lanza. But unless the child is already troubled, he is thinking of nothing like that. More likely it has nothing to do with a desire to harm another human being.
Experts at the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood encourage parents not to suppress children's aggression in play. "Children turn to play so that they can learn what they need to learn about aggression. We should become concerned about children's relationship to aggression only if they appear to be overly pre-occupied with aggression in their thoughts or actions outside the sphere of play."
There's a part of me that wishes my two young boys would be satisfied with the same sorts of stories and toys that I enjoyed as a child: Anne of Green Gables, Beverly Cleary, and American Girls dolls. Instead, they love anything involving bows and arrows, pirates and cannons, whales and harpoons, and knights slaying dragons.
As a Christian holding to pacifist convictions, I feel sheepish admitting that while early on in our family life, I resolved not to allow our boys to engage in any sort of gunplay; over time, that rule has slowly disintegrated as my children weaponized various items: Legos, hobbyhorses, sticks, blocks, and, hilariously, a sheet of edible dried seaweed bitten carefully into the shape of a gun. It wasn't that they'd seen guns on television or in video games. I'm still not sure where the idea came from. I did notice that the relentless weaponization of everything actually waned once I stopped actively saying, "No guns!"
"Isn't a 'pacifist boy' kind of an oxymoron?" a friend recently asked. According to one study, 60 to 80 percent of boys played with aggressive toys at home, including guns, while only 30 percent of girls do. Whether this is in how they're wired or how they're socialized is tough to tell, but the difference is real, and the impulse for some parents and teachers to squash it is strong.
That's not a great idea, says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and author of It's a Boy! Your Son's Development from Birth to 18. "Boys think, 'If you don't like my play, you don't like me.'" Furthermore, studies have never shown any link between playing with toy weapons in childhood (including neutral playthings—sticks, blocks—that have been "weaponized") and violence in adulthood.
When they zap imaginary monsters—or each other—with "space guns" that they've crafted from Legos, they're not acting on hate, or mental disturbance, or a desire to harm. They're playing. It certainly does seem that what my children do in play is in an alternate reality altogether. "Who is the only One who can give life?" I'll catechize. "God," they'll reply. "So who is the only One who should take a life?" I press. "God!" they say, with a barely suppressed of course. I asked my precocious seven-year-old why, if that's true, he still likes to play with guns. "That's why we play with toy guns, Mom," he says, neatly summing up Stuart Brown's entire theory of play "so that no one will get hurt!"
I applaud the White House's effort to address gun violence holistically, through measures providing for mental health coverage and sensible limits on weapons and accessories that do nothing but facilitate mass killing. I agree with Sharon Hodde Miller that all Christians can back better gun control "to ensure that these most vulnerable members of our society are not subject to on-going violence for the ideals of a privileged few." I believe that every child has the right to a childhood that is free of violence… and a childhood in which they are free to play in ways that (however paradoxically) make for peace.