War Play Doesn’t Lead To War

Should we let little kids play with toy guns?

Should we let little kids play with toy guns?

I am a pacifist. I do not support acts of war between nations, I eat a vegetarian diet and I try (and fail) to never raise my voice with my children. I believe there is a peaceful solution to every problem.

Yet twice a month, I sit down with a group of friends to play Dungeons and Dragons. I pretend to be a cold-blooded killer. Last week I cut a dragon’s head off with my flaming sword. I am not even joking. It felt great.

After the game, I put away my character sheet and dice and went home, where I was not at all tempted to cut off my husband’s head with a flaming sword. Even though he was acting like a grumpy dragon.

My teenager engages in a lot more war play than I do. While I play Scrabble on my iPhone, he’s playing first-person shooter games on his laptop. These vividly drawn games look almost real, and in them he can destroy everything from robots to zombies to innocent bystanders.

No doubt in the wake of the Millard South High School shooting, some pundits will again be blaming video games for teens erupting into violence. But I’m pretty certain it takes more than a violent game to push a kid over the edge.

My son is a happy, healthy kid. When he puts his games away, he does things like clean the house without being asked and play Candy Land with his little sisters. Playing war, even in video format, doesn’t seem to have hurt him any.

Yet I still reflexively disapprove when my little girls pick up sticks and turn them into swords.

I’m not alone in this. There’s a “no pretend killing” policy in place at the little one’s preschool. The kids are not allowed to kill ghosts with magic wands, much less each other with pretend swords. What are their teachers afraid of?

There’s a kind of knee-jerk distaste that comes from seeing little kids engage in any kind of violent play. Why are they doing that? Are they distrubed? War is bad, kids! Stop waving that stick around!

In our culture, children are the ultimate emblem of innocence and sweetness, especially girls. Seeing them play at war just feels bad to adults, with our sense of the weight real violence carries. That doesn’t mean all war play is bad, though. As Kelly Coyle DiNorcia at the Humane Connection points out, some kinds of violent fantasy play might be important for kids.

For some kids, they’re enacting violence they’ve seen, and fantasizing about a better outcome. Others are just blowing up small conflicts from their daily lives into epic tales of war and love. Everyone who’s ever written a fantasy story knows that trick. My kids wave their “swords” around with as much seriousness as they bring to asking me to marry them, or flying to the moon.

Children pretend to have weapons because they like pretending to have power. Of course we want to teach them peaceful problem-solving techniques, but I also want to leave room for the kids’ imaginations. And they imagine being armed and dangerous when “ghosts” fly out of their closets at night. More power to them. Literally.

When my kids pick up sticks and turn them into swords, or build cannons out of tupperware, they’re exercising their creative imaginations. They’re taking feelings and experiences they’ve had in the world and turning them into stories where the children have more power, more tools and weapons at their disposal. Study after study shows that creative play is the cornerstone of a healthy childhood. I don’t want to squelch that, even if I’m uncomfortable with some of the places that creativity takes them.

It’s hard to bite my tongue and let my kids play at war, but I think it’s the right thing to do. As long as their play is safe. Obviously a game that involved actually hurting anyone or destroying anything would quickly end with a lesson on personal safety and respect. Perhaps that’s one of the purposes violent games serve for preschoolers. It gives them another way to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. In reality, they need adult supervision to use safety scissors. But in make-believe, they can have swords.

There’s a huge difference to me, too, between the war play that emerges naturally between young children and the kind that is handed to them as a pre-packaged fantasy by adults.

My stepson’s first person shooter games are the opposite of creative play and self-expression. The violence in that game isn’t coming from him, its coming from the makers of the game, and being spoonfed to him as he plays. I have no illusions that this is good for him, any more than the soda he drinks while he plays it is. But I also don’t see it harming him in small doses, any more than an occasional Coke.

I can’t complain about him playing them. He’s not an adult yet, but at 17 he’s getting very close. He acquired the games and the machine to play them on and the soda all through his own efforts. He doesn’t play them around the smaller kids. My little kids don’t even know games like this exist, much less have access to them. They’ve never played any video game at all.

As far as I can tell, the shooting games are for my teenager what online Scrabble is for me: a form of mindless entertainment, and a way to connect with friends online.

Do I wish he’d picked one that doesn’t involve make-believe guns? Sure. I like my fantasy violence old school, with swords and catapults. Do I think for a moment that playing these games will prompt him to pick up a real gun? Not any more than I think playing Dungeons and Dragons will ever inspire me to pick up a real life +1 Sword of Smiting next time my husband forgets to take the trash out.

Photo: green melinda

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