Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Swords, Guns, and Pretend Violence: Just Kids Play or Something More?

Have you ever watched a group of preschool-aged boys play together without much direction from adults? Having a 3-year-old boy myself, I see this quite often. Inevitably, by the end of it, there will be some sort of pretend fight, wrestling match, or weapon play involved. You may wonder if boys today are just prone to violence. I would argue that boys (or girls for that matter) are not any more prone to violence now than at any other period in history, but rather that this type of pretend play fills a very basic, almost innate, developmental need in young children.

From an adult perspective, pretend violence (especially guns) seems problematic, but kids have a totally different mindset. Young kids don’t have the same understanding of these issues as we do. They are still trying to figure out the difference between good and evil and the distinction between fiction and reality.

Young children also may have fears. When you think about it, there are a lot of aspects of life that little kids have no control over. Playing with pretend guns or superhero play may help them garner a sense of control that they do not have in the real world. Most psychologists agree that this type of rough and tumble play also is helpful in kids learning empathy, self-control and boundaries. If you watch kids play closely, you will notice that many times they are regulating themselves and know when the play has gone too far and will stop, many times even without the intervention of an adult.

Some researchers have argued that the lessons learned through rough play may actually prevent children from becoming violent later in life. Noted physician and psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart Brown, has found a noticeable absence of active, rough-and-tumble play in the profiles of many violent criminals. One important distinction, however, is the contrast between pretend violence and real violence. If a child plays gun fight or wrestles with other kids but in “real life” is kind and considerate of their friends’ feelings, then the child is obviously learning the difference between fiction and reality and is probably fairly well-adjusted. If, however, a child is violent or aggressive towards friends or animals in real life activities, then this could be a sign that the child is troubled and the adults in their life should monitor this behavior very closely.

Recently there has been a series of troubling news stories of kids being suspended for pretend gun play. Although it’s good to be aware of how kids are playing, this type of extreme discipline lacks an understanding of children’s development and in the end, may just confuse kids even more. Ultimately, young children are just trying to make sense of the world and their place in it and part of this task is understanding good and evil. As adults, we must take on the difficult task of trying to explain these issues to our children instead of simply hoping they go away.

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