Sound familiar? If you’re the mom of a preschool boy, most likely, you are familiar with this type of fantasy play. When my four-year-old first started putting on his Batman or Spiderman costume at every play date, I found it quite cute. But when he yelled, “Let’s kill them!” on the playground at school, his teacher was alarmed and gave him a time out. I certainly don’t approve of him saying “kill,” but up until then, I wasn’t too concerned about his fantasy play against the bad guys.
According to experts, I have no reason to be. Perhaps I might want to advise my son to say “get him” rather than “kill him,” but otherwise, my son was playing like a typical four-year-old boy.
“When I was a kid it was Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Peter Pan. The important thing for parents of preschoolers to understand is that there is a difference between imaginary excitement and imaginary aggression and real violence,” explains Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play.
Jane, who has taught preschool children for twenty-five years and teaches currently in Massachusetts, says that parents are overly worried about this type of fantasy play because the world seems a much scarier place since the Columbine shootings. But, it’s important to remember that kids have been playing good guys versus bad guys since the beginning of time and Jane explains that this type of play, in and of itself, is not aggressive.
“If a kid is pointing his finger at another child and says, ‘bang bang you’re dead’ this may be a cooperative and friendly game. If the other child falls down and counts to ten and then gets up again, he’s agreeing with the game. It’s pretend aggression and can be very cooperative,” she explains.
Boys between three and five don’t actually understand death.
“Killing to a preschooler doesn’t mean the same thing for you and me,” says Jane. It is a temporary loss of power, not death, war, or terrorism. They don’t connect it to death at all. We confuse children when we act as if this is something bad. There is no evidence that this [sort of play] leads to horrible behavior later on in life.”
So when should parents intervene?
According to experts, intervention may be necessary if a child crosses over from fantasy play to real aggression. If a child actually hurts a friend physically or if he says something truly hurtful like, “I hate you!” that’s when a parent needs to step in.
It is not, however, a time to overreact. A good approach is for a parent to ask what is going on. Typically, according to Jane, kids are upset when another child doesn’t follow the rules of the game and young boys often can’t express themselves through their words. Just having the offending child say he’s sorry, doesn’t help him learn how to communicate in these types of situations.
“Typically when someone hits or someone says, ‘I hate you’ something went wrong. Someone probably didn’t share his toys. The boy doesn’t actually hate his friend. He doesn’t actually know how to deal with conflict. It’s our job to say, ‘what’s up?’ And then help the boy say, ‘I was using that truck and want to play with it some more and then you can have it.’ We have to help them solve it with words.” Jane says.
She says this scenario often happens during fantasy, aggressive play, and when one child isn’t playing the game the way the other child wants him to. It’s rarely a reflection of the type of play causing real aggression. Setting a few rules can help. If preschoolers are pretending to be knights with plastic swords, a rule can be that the swords don’t actually touch another child or the game is over.
Another time parents or educators need to get involved is when one child becomes afraid. For example, if three boys are pretending to be dinosaurs and their growling is scaring one child, the parent can suggest that they be gentler dinosaurs or plant-eaters when around that child if he still wants to play with them.
And finally, if the aggressive play truly disturbs you, perhaps the child is over-stimulated. Children deal with issues though play, so if a child watched previews for R-rated movies while waiting to see a G one, those previews may appear in his nightmares and be reenacted in play. If he is watching a lot of TV, even if the content is fairly harmless, the commercials may not be. Jane suggests that parents limit TV and watch with them whenever possible.
“If the play with aggressive fantasies in it upsets a child, that’s when you need to talk about it. It’s all about learning to explain how you feel and what you want,” Jane reiterates.
Which is a skill that can come in handy at any age.
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play, by Jane Katch