Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Pistol Made of Toast

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.


Ali said...

My gods do I love, love, LOVE this post! Truly excellent! Where to begin?! I find it particularly relevant as I literally only just finished reading an old college thesis I wrote (seven years ago!) that discussed the postmodern concept of "deep play" and its incorporation into modern Paganism through ritual and other forms of spiritual practice (as well as through art, dress, etc.). And here you write such a profound and insightful post about exactly this idea! Awesome!

This post reminds me of a home movie my parents recently reveled in showing to my partner, Jeff, in which my brother and me are engaged in a snowball fight with neighborhood children (I was about twelve). At the beginning of the video, I flash the camera the peace-sign.. and then proceed to pummel the others with snowballs. Later on in the video, however, is a moment when I accidentally hit someone too hard and immediately abandon the game to make sure she is okay. Yes, you are absolutely right, play "fighting" is intimately tied up with learning restraint and the limits of strength. I would say this is just as true for girls as for boys (or at least for tomboys like me ;).

Thank you so much for this post! On a related note, Jeff and I have embarked on a project to collect and archive interviews, biographies, articles and essays showcasing Pagans who subscribe to pacifism and peace-making. I would absolutely love if you would grant us permission to use this essay once the website has been launched (with full credit and link-backs, of course). I would also be thrilled if you'd consider doing an email or Skype interview with me about the relationship between your spiritual/religious life and your views on pacifism. If you'd be interested in either of these things, please get in touch with me at: meadowsweet [dot] myrrh [at]

Okay, I'm done gushing now, I promise.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's a wonderful post! I've been reading your blog for a few weeks, Hystery, and really enjoying it. I have 2 boys also, 10 and 9, and I've experienced all the things you're talking about. I'm also a Quaker, yet I don't believe in stomping on this kind of play.

You know, Gandhi said he couldn't do anything with a coward. Children can only learn courage to stand up to oppression by play fighting in whatever way they like as kids. (My daughter has play arguments!)

I still sometimes read old fantasy books like Lord of the Rings at times when I'm about to make a leap of some kind that requires courage. We grow through imagination.

Hystery said...

Thanks, Ali. I was feeling blue and your comment cheered me up considerably.

Some of this comes from frequent exposure to Strong National Museum of Play which, along with some incredibly fun exhibits, also has lots of information about the theory of play. Love that place. I'll bet you would too. Every time I go there I remember who I want to be.

I think I'll later explore the idea of warrior-nature in pacifists. The women in my family are a bit on the fierce side. In fact, when I wrote my wedding vows, I vowed to be a "warrior for justice." Looking back on that, I realize that was sort of an "off" wedding vow. I also wore combat boots under my gown. ;-)

If you want to use this essay, that's fine, but let me clean it up first. I'm a lazy blogger and barely proofread anything I post. This time I was especially lazy (as well as hurried) and it is full of errors.

Hystery said...


Thanks for your comments. Aren't boys great? I never liked them much until I had some of my own and now I'd fill a house with them if I could. My daughter is also a strong person but her play manifests itself differently.

Much of my fantasy life comes from books too. I grew up on C.S. Lewis who I continue to adore. He is my bridge between Paganism and Christianity although that idea would certainly horrify him.

Lone Star Ma said...

Hmmm. I love what you say about learning restraint through that play, though I haven't necessarily seen it play out that way myself. As a middle school teacher and the big sister of three boys, it is more my experience that good-natured horseplay between boys often accidentally crosses lines and then results in genuine fighting. I sure would prefer to see it work the way it works with your boys.

I am opposed to violent media (even really quality media that contains violence like Narnia - although I have some strong issues with Lewis - or L'Engle or The Lord of the Rings, etc.) before the age of seven. I believe that children between birth and around 7 have a very absorbent mind like Montessori found and that mind cannot filter things before around that point and that it is hard for violence not to be a part of them if they are exposed to it then. After that developmental period, I am more flexible - Narnia, L'Engle, even my beloved Star Wars after a bit - but not war toys. I certainly remember the oldest of my little brothers astounding my mother and I with his stick guns but as a mother, I haven't really had to deal with that much, having only girls, who rarely make weapons of anything but their arguments.

Hystery said...

Lone Star Ma,

There are several years between my boys so that makes a difference. My sister and I (children of pacifist parents) were close in age, loved each other dearly, and frequently beat each other mercilessly. You know the nursery rhyme, There Once Were Two Cats from Kilkenny? ;-) We grew up, stopped hitting each other and continue to be very devoted to each other. I learned a lot from my fights with her. There is something to loving someone that much and feeling that passionately angry with them that is good practice for the world.

Star Wars and Star Trek were part of my children's lives from infancy. To that we've added L'Engle, Tolkien, Lewis, J.K.Rowling. We are nerds and geeks beyond measure. We quote from these books the way others quote from the Bible (also a very bloody text!)

But I'm not saying you aren't onto something in your limitations of this material. I'm not convinced it is harmless either. It is potent stuff. Strong medicine....and some of it toxic in doses too high. Misapplied, or taken too early, at the wrong time or without supervision, it is dangerous.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Thanks for the insightful post on how to deal with violence and children. (I've been gone so I am commenting a bit late.)

The tendency toward fighting does appear to be innate in boys/men and, (maybe to a lesser extent?), in girls/women. The key as you explain is to be how to channel this dangerous, potentially destructive tendency.

Another way is to hold up real models such as Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Desmond Doss...

And to guide this desire for combat into nonviolent courage, fighting in the Lamb's War.

Here's an excellent example from the Brethren in Christ:
Bishop Donald Tippet of New York City had a scar that ran across his forehead and he was
blind in one eye from two men who robbed and mugged him. After his hospitalization,
he decided to declare "war" on them. He went to the jail to visit them and told them God loved them and had a purpose
for their lives, and he wasn’t going to leave them alone until they discovered that
purpose. He visited them weekly, and finally led them both to Jesus Christ...went to their parole hearings, and testified
on their behalf...told them that when they got out of prison he would help them finish high did and made outstanding grades, went to medical
school, and became an opthamologist!
...the only
weapons that work are the weapons of Jesus
Woody Dalton, senior pastor of the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church.


Hystery said...


Yes, it is so important to show children the lives and work of people of peace. I make that a big part of the history I teach my own children and am consciously including the history of pacifism in my teaching at the community college as well. In fact, when it comes time to teach about various wars, I focus most of my attention on those people who tried to prevent them, stop them, and protect lives and human dignity during them. I figure their textbooks, their prior history classes, and their future history classes will focus on the "war heroes." So I focus on those who fought for dignity, social justice, peace. We have to know that others chose peace before us. We have to know what they were willing to risk for it. Maybe some of it sinks in. Maybe. But I do think I have to try.

waldorfcreative said...

Thank you for this post, it has prompted me to write my own thoughts on my blog. I've linked to you to share the inspiration of my ongoing thought process.
Many blessings

Hystery said...

An article from the Wall Street Journal that, while a bit on the simplistic side, comments on how fathers' physical rough and tumble parenting can help kids learn to moderate their inappropriate or violent impulses.