In support of children’s violent play

Feb 25, 2016 by

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“This is a bad girl, and this fairy is killing her with a sword,” my daughter explains about the picture she has drawn.

“Oh,” I remark. “That’s interesting.”

“I’m going to pick up a stick and stab the monster in the head and the tummy,” she confides in me as we walk through the scary trees.

“Wow, you’re brave,” I tell her. “Show me how you’re going to do it.”

When I started retelling her the story of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the part of the story that most intrigued her was the part where Eric drives a ship into Ursula’s gigantic belly. I didn’t hold back on any of the details. She was fascinated.

As a princess-obsessed 4-year-old who spends her days drawing and dressing up, I’m surprised how often my daughter speaks of “killing.”

And as a pacifist, I’m sometimes surprised how okay I am with it all.

I’m a pacifist, but…

I don’t believe in hitting children in any manner or under any circumstances. (In fact, I don’t even believe in punishing them at all.) I don’t believe in carrying a weapon for self-defense. I come from a long line of pacifists (Mennonites) who have risked their lives to avoid participating in war. I don’t believe there is such a thing as redemptive violence. Ever.

I’ve always been the person to outlaw violent video games in our home because they “encourage violent behavior and a glorification of guns.” I would recoil in horror if I heard children talk of stabbing or chopping up enemies. I nodded with understanding when studies reported that watching violent media leads to increased aggression. Of course it does!, I thought. I assumed we would have a no-toy-guns policy when our kids got older.

I’m still committed to radical non-violence. But my relationship to violent play changed last year — before my daughter had any vocabulary or visibly inclination for violence — when I read the book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones.

To my complete surprise, Jones managed to overturn many of my beliefs about fantasy violence.

Now that my daughter is older, she’s starting to think about, imagine and play out violent behavior, mostly toward imaginary creatures. And instead of trying to talk her out of it, suppress it or lecture her about it, I support it.

Here’s why.

1. Kids need a safe way to express their fears and aggression.

The world is a scary place, and children feel very small and powerless in it. “Of all the challenges children face, one of the biggest is their own powerlessness,” Jones writes (p. 65). Children are constantly and painfully aware that they are extremely vulnerable. Their bodies are small and weak in a world ruled by grown-ups, and they have very little control over their lives. Thus “one of our most profound yearnings as we grow up,” Jones argues, “is simply to feel powerful” (p. 66). Play violence helps a child experience that feeling. After all, one of the greatest powers a human can wield is the power to kill a foe. Some might do it with a magic wand; others with an imaginary dagger.

Play — especially aggressive play — allows children to release those powerful emotions and experience some of those feelings of strength and mastery. “Aggression is an expression of the need to feel strong,” Jones argues. “Children will face it, and feel it, and have to do something with it. Playing with it makes it feel less scary, [and] puts them in charge” (p. 68).

I like how Jones summarizes some of the essential functions of play:

It ‘explodes’ tension through emotional arousal and make-believe aggression. It provides correctives, happy endings, that help children to believe that what frightens them can be overcome. It helps them navigate their concerns through structures and rules that they can learn and predict and so feel they’ve mastered. It allows them to manipulate troubling ideas until those ideas become familiar and lose their power. (p. 101)

2. Violent play doesn’t cause real violence.

I don’t have the space or desire to explore this extensively — you’ll have to read Jones’ book yourself if you want to learn more. But he argues very persuasively that make-believe violence doesn’t necessarily cause or turn into real violence.

Yes, kids can get hurt when they wrestle or swordplay with sticks. And yes, boisterous play can get out of hand and require occasional adult intervention to keep them from destroying the living room.

However, “the benefits of rough-and-tumble play are well documented,” Jones points out. “It can be annoying for parents, it can get out of hand and lead to head bumps, but most authorities agree that it’s normal, healthy, and generally conducive to more confident kids” (p. 37).

And yes, there are kids who are genuinely violent. But their violence stems from other problems in their lives, not from violent play.

He explains: “Profiles of violent adolescents don’t generally show any exorbitant amount of aggressive play early in life, and, in fact, often show the opposite: violent teenagers often had trouble bonding with peers in normal childhood play” (37).

3. Kids know the difference between fantasy and real violence.

We adults feel anxious when our kids talk about killing and shooting and stabbing, for fear that they will want to act out these things in real life.

But kids know that their bloody fantasies are separate from reality. They don’t actually want to plunge blades into actual bodies. My little girl can talk about stabbing monsters all day, but I know that if I gave her a real dagger, there would be a zero percent chance she would actually stab somebody with it.

But sometimes we act like we genuinely fear that our children will try to kill each other when we see or hear them play-fighting, and that sends confusing messages.

In fact, when we get worked up about their make-believe violence, we send the troubling message that their fantasies are dangerous.

“We don’t help children learn the difference between fantasy and reality when we allow their fantasies to provoke reactions from us that are more appropriate to reality,” Jones argues. (56)

When we freak out and start shouting, “We don’t shoot people!”…

we blur the very boundaries that [children are] trying to establish. We teach them that pretend shooting makes adults feel threatened in reality, and therefore their own fantasies must be more powerful and more dangerous than they thought. The results for the child is more anxiety and self-doubt, more concern over the power of violent thoughts, less sense of power over their own feelings, and less practice expressing their fantasies — a combination far more likely to lead either to behavioral problems or excessive timidity than safe self-enjoyment would be. (56)

(Side note: A popular Mennonite old wives’ tale tells of a child who pretended to shoot another child with a stick, and then real bullets came out and shot the other child. This is a perfect example of what Jones is talking about. The story meant to deter children from play-shooting, but what I think it really does is tell children that imagination can be dangerous.)

So when Lydia tells me she was trying to “kill” her cousin, I don’t have to worry that she harbors any real desire to murder her little friend. We do need to have a conversation about respecting her cousin’s desire not to be whacked on the head, but I don’t need to be alarmed by her violent language. I don’t need to tell her “We don’t kill people!” because she already knows.

So I’m not going to worry about all of her violent language and play. I’m confident that I’m still raising a little pacifist who will someday use her self-confidence and imagination to make the world a gentler, more loving place.

Kathleen Quiring lives in Leamington, Ont. This originally appeared on her blog,

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