My mother-in-law warned me that boys are different from girls. "I never bought my boys guns," she said, "but they'd chew their toast into the shape of a pistol." Of course, I assumed that I would never have her problems. My boys would be perfect angels far more interested in Botticelli and Brahms than with bazookas. "Come read to us from the works of Emerson, Mother!" they would beg. "Can we please listen a little longer to the sonata?" Right. Not so much. Every day I listen to the sounds of starship battles and the clanging of imaginary swords. I hear the shrieks of the dying and the battle cries of enraged warriors on the great, bloody battlefield of my living room sofa. What happened?
I was raised as a pacifist and I am raising my children with the same values. We speak frankly and frequently about our concerns with interpersonal and international violence, and we challenge our children toward compassionate and creative problem-solving. Just this past week my son brought me great pride when he stood up, for the first time, to his great-grandparents' thoughtless patriotism out of his concern for America's involvement in the wars. I have made it very clear to my children that violence is unacceptable and that there is nothing honorable about warfare.
But I do not discourage my children from reading, talking about, or engaging in fantasy battles. Here's why:
For both kids and grown-ups, play (whether in acting out roles or experimenting with metaphors and symbolic thought through art and language) is an essential human process allowing us mental space to experiment with emotions and situations we may face physically and psychologically. Literary and mythical descriptions of violence help us learn to identify and deal with aggression, sorrow, and betrayal. Examples include epic battles and martyrdom in classical and spiritual literature as well as within children's literature. The utilization of these linguistic and artistic symbol forms should not be confused with the manifestation of these symbols. I would not want my kids to engage in actual sword fights against evil nor would I want them knocking over money changing tables and driving people out of temples. I would not want them to literally surrender their bodies for martyrdom, or to literally jump on a white horse to champion a lost cause... but I do want them to use this imagery to understand how one gathers up emotional energy for the "battles" they will inevitably face in life. I want them to use fantasy and play to practice with emotions involved in intellectual and emotional conflict. In this I think of my mother, a champion of the rights of sexually assaulted women and children. On her office wall is a picture she drew as a child in which she made herself a knight with a sword ready to slay the dragon. My mother is a pacifist, but make no mistake, she's a fighter too. She carries the dragon-slayer within her.
Another reason I've learned not to fuss overly much about play that uses violent imagery is that it seems to help my male children deal with their anger. Our son is much larger than an average child so we have been particularly careful to train him as a pacifist. We do not allow him to play with toy guns because we do not wish to support an industry that glorifies and institutionalizes violence. On the other hand, we don't interrupt their play with guns and swords they make with sticks. Talk about a losing battle! Just as my mother-in-law warned, I have learned that a piece of partly eaten toast, a funny-shaped rock, an index finger or an upside down toy dinosaur all make excellent toy guns. What's a pacifist mom to do? My boys are gentle as lambs yet they seem to gravitate toward this play.
I don't worry because the men who are raising them also played at these games when they were children and are now pacifists and feminists. Also, in watching them "play fight", I see them engaged not in violence but in restraint. I see them practicing verbal negotiation, muscular and emotional control, and even a kind of cooperative choreography as they carry out their "battles". They are learning how to withdraw and how to stop. They are learning how to control themselves. It takes a lot of effort to stage an epic sword fight complete with dramatic vocalizations and sound effects (what is it with boys and sound effects?!) and have no one get hurt in the slightest.
I see this play at work with my older son and his little brother. The five year old has no fear of "fighting" with the twelve year old. It is all a dance. The twelve year old has great control. He learned it from rough housing and playing with the older men in our family. Indeed, when boys play with older, more powerful men, they are not just learning about power; they are learning how to refrain from using it. Long ago I read how important it is for male children, who will one day occupy powerful bodies, to learn about restraint in the process of learning about their increasingly muscular and powerful bodies. Within a context of loving discipline and education, the adult demonstrates restraint in play and teaches the child the same. When they wrestle together, or play in sports and other physical competitions, the child is learning that body has power that is controllable. To quote Mr. Rogers who advocated that children physically express their anger through words and play in his song about anger, "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time!". The body is a strange evolving creature, a constantly new challenge for a child who must become familiar with its sensations, emotions, and powers so that they can use them responsibly.
That is the point of play. People who will one day have the power to hurt or kill smaller, weaker, more vulnerable people, also need to have lots of practice understanding their bodies' and emotions so they will not be tempted to do so. When anger overwhelms my children (as it does all human beings at some time) I hope they will naturally fall back lessons learned in play and realize that they have choices. They have restraint and intellect as well as strength and speed. I hope that within those inevitable moments of violent temptation, their bodies' will recall lessons of restraint and control and give their brains just enough time to recall themselves to peace.