What To Do When Your Child Engages in Violent PlayBrian Gresko
Sometimes Mean Hippo, or its popular variant, Mean Snake, takes precedence over dessert, which is something the foodie in me will never understand.
Oh, I’m sorry — you don’t know how to play Mean Hippo? It’s when an adult, usually me, pretends to be a mean hippo that lumbers slowly toward my son before finally charging him, fingers outstretched to tickle. In response, Felix sprints across the kitchen, through the backdoor, and into the yard, which is base. As he runs, he plants a bomb for the Hippo to trample over and “get blown to smithereens.” Which I do, with lots of sound effects and an Oscar worthy, and giggle producing, death twitch. The game then repeats in Hippo run after Hippo run.
Chances are, if you have a little boy, you’re familiar with the general outline of this game. There’s a good guy and a bad guy and some chasing and a weaponized defense strategy — a gun, a bomb, a battleaxe. Where exactly did my son pick up the language of violence? I blame Woody Woodpecker, currently streaming on Netflix, but truth be told, he might have heard talk of weapons on the top-of-the-hour NPR headlines. It’s near impossible to be an always-observant, ever-listening, clever human being and not pick up on the ways in which people hurt one another.
There seems to be something hard-wired in many children, but especially boys, that draws them to active games which involve conflict and struggle between opposing forces. Part of this might be the intense amount of energy that kids contain. Felix will, when excited or bothered, literally jog in place humming to himself. His emotions, it seems, need to manifest themselves physically. So too is his play focused on big, intense, physical statements I’m right/you’re wrong, I’m good/you’re bad. Even if we try playing house it becomes about rule breaking and rule enforcement.
From a more philosophical point of view, his games are enacting an integral part of the great human drama. Violence is a fundamental element of our humanity, whether we like it or not. Stories as recent as Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy and as ancient as Homer’s Iliad are, at heart, about warfare between individuals, societies; order vs. chaos.
Like many parents, my wife and I wondered what we should do about Felix’s aggressive play. We tried correcting his overly-violent fantasies. We attempted to introduce new games. I showed him how to work out these scenarios via action figures, which struck me as more removed from reality. Nothing worked. And then we just decided to go along with it, since this is the way Felix wants to play right now.
We do, however, moderate the extremity of his language, letting him know if he’s being “too mean.” (Like most little kids, he despises meanness in all its forms.) We adjust the rules of the game instead of making the game taboo, and so he plays along. For example, he never says, “I shot you with my gun and killed you!” Rather, he has an imaginary mud gun that shoots messy gobs of muck that stop me in my tracks and require a (pretend) change of clothes. In a way this is like the comic books, where the heroes and villains never die, they’re just momentarily contained.
In an article on LiveScience, the psychologist Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, says: “There is no such thing as violent play. Violence and aggression are intended to hurt somebody. Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”
The article makes clear that there is no observable link between violent play in children and violent behavior as an adult. I’m a good example of this. I went through an embarrassing period in middle school where I wore camouflage fatigues and a “Kill Em’ All” tee shirt emblazoned with a skull and cross-bones. Dressed such, I’d roll around my neighbors lawn with a play rifle, taking shots at pretend enemies. And for years me and the neighborhood kids played elaborate games of chase where one person was Jason from the Friday the 13th horror movies, out to kill and disembowel. And look at me today! I’m a fully functioning, non-violent member of society.
So while your child would benefit from your guidance in this as in most areas of life, don’t get too bent out of shape if the game of the day is aggressive and even bloody. It’s just a part of growing up! And nothing you need to go to war with your kid over.