Of Little Boys, Violent Play, and Pretending to Shoot the Bad Guys

Like many boys their ages, my two sons possess an almost preternatural talent for turning anything — and I do mean anything — into a gun, or “shooter” as they say. It could be a stick, an assortment of Legos, a slice of cheese, or even a puzzle piece in the shape of Nebraska, but put it in their hands, and next thing you’ll know, they’ll be shooting freeze rays and fireballs at the bad guys. And it’s not just shooters. Thanks, no doubt, to MythBusters, they’ve become quite skilled at explosive devices too. The other day, I saw them carefully placing “charges” in the form of Lego blocks, and then racing back to their “bunker” to set them off, complete with a 3-2-1 countdown. (So at least they’re exercising some safety protocol.)

On the one hand, it’s difficult not to smile at the creativity and enthusiasm on display in their actions. If nothing else, it reminds me of my youth when I, along with my brother, cousins, and friends, would have plenty of “violent” adventures and confrontations of our own. And I must confess, I’ve done my fair share to encourage my sons’ activities (like introducing them to MythBusters), much to my wife’s chagrin.

On the other hand, there are times when their violent play seems excessive, and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, and my wife and I do start to wonder what all of this talk about shooters, bad guys, explosives, and so on will mean in the long run. It’s unthinkable to me that my sons could grow up to be like the maladjusted young men that we, tragically, have heard so much about in recent weeks and months. I certainly don’t want to do, or encourage, anything that might cause them to take those first steps down that awful path.

We know that boys are, in a sense, hard-wired for these types of pursuits, but at what point do we encourage them to move beyond their base biological defaults, and how do we do so? Well, according to Her.meneutics writer Rachel Marie Stone, we can probably start by relaxing a little bit. A self-described “Christian holding to pacifist convictions,” Stone also found herself perplexed and troubled by her boys’ violent play. She writes:

There’s a part of me that wishes my two young boys would be satisfied with the same sorts of stories and toys that I enjoyed as a child: Anne of Green Gables, Beverly Cleary, and American Girls dolls. Instead, they love anything involving bows and arrows, pirates and cannons, whales and harpoons, and knights slaying dragons.

She includes a link to a WebMD article that points out that no link between violent childhood play and adult aggression has been found. In fact, violent play can actually be a healthy part of growth and development:

Play has been linked to social and cognitive development. Through imaginary games, children learn how to control impulses, delay gratification, think symbolically, and view things from another’s perspective. Play also allows children to act out their fears and aspirations. “As a little boy, you’re not very powerful,” Thompson says. “With a gun, you feel powerful and heroic.”

That doesn’t mean this type of play is about violence, however. According to Thompson, it’s really about dominance and heroism, winning and losing, and who gets to be the good guy in the end. Sometimes “there is aggression and hurtfulness, and that must be stopped,” Thompson says.

Back to Stone:

When they zap imaginary monsters — or each other — with “space guns” that they’ve crafted from Legos, they’re not acting on hate, or mental disturbance, or a desire to harm. They’re playing. It certainly does seem that what my children do in play is in an alternate reality altogether. “Who is the only One who can give life?” I’ll catechize. “God,” they’ll reply. “So who is the only One who should take a life?” I press. “God!” they say, with a barely suppressed of course. I asked my precocious seven-year-old why, if that’s true, he still likes to play with guns. “That’s why we play with toy guns, Mom,” he says, neatly summing up Stuart Brown’s entire theory of play “so that no one will get hurt!”

I know I’ll probably never get my boys to stop playing with shooters (and explosives, swords, etc.) — at least, not without potentially squelching some aspect of their personality that I want to encourage, such as their imagination and creativity or their desire for heroism. I do want to keep a watchful eye, though, for “aggression and hurtfulness” — for those times when play crosses the line into something obviously more troubling, damaging, and bullying. And certainly there will be times when calm and quiet are necessary: No shooters are allowed at the kitchen table, for instance, and certainly not during bedtime prayers. But beyond that, perhaps the most important thing that I can do, for now, is maintain a safe environment in which the bad guys in their little minds are easily vanquished. And ultimately, I want to encourage them to consider that true heroism is manifested, not through violence and explosions, but Christ-like peace and sacrifice.

My wife and I are currently leading children’s church, and at the end of the lesson, we let everyone enjoy some free-for-all playtime while waiting for their parents to pick them up. During this past Sunday’s playtime, the girls went to one side of the room and drew pictures of hearts and Jesus and practiced their penmanship on the whiteboard. Meanwhile, the boys went to the other side and quickly became engaged in a rowdy game of, well, I don’t know what it was, exactly. All I know is that it involved action figures, an eagle, an invisible bad guy, some firefighting equipment, and — natch — an aircraft carrier. It was far from sedate, and there were plenty of explosions and bad guys getting knocked down.

Nobody was getting hurt — except for that invisible bad guy (though I’m sure he had it coming) — and, perhaps more important, nobody was getting excluded or picked on, not even the kid who was there for the first time. Instead of expressing concern at the “violence” or forcing the boys to “enjoy” something a little quieter, my wife and I just chose to laugh and delight in the utterly imaginative chaos that little boys create so well.

Photo of my son and his shooter by Renae Morehead.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Nick K

    Great article. It reminds me of one of my favorite Paul Rudd movie quotes, “He’s just a little boy. Little boy’s fight. It doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be a frat boy rapist.”

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    I think it’s good to feed little boys with literature that explores the meaning of courage in battle contexts as well as peaceful contexts. The Lord of the Rings is a prime example. War isn’t inherently wicked. When the cause is just, it can even be beautiful. God placed that instinct in every little boy’s heart. We should encourage them to be fearless in attacking the enemy. There’s a whole slew of warlike hymns we could cite here as well.

  • Dawn

    I never have seen anything wrong with that sort of play. As adults we should follow up on the consequences and discuss it with them. Even if they shoot an imaginary bad guy they still need to understand (even if they deserved it) what would happen in real life. he would have to go to the doctor or he would die or his mommy would be sad…. Coming from a hunting or military background start talking about gun safety now. how to use it and when to use it. learning through play is that not how it is supposed to be?

  • http://www.manofthewest.net Ian B

    As usual, G.K.C. had something interesting and thought provoking to say on the subject of boys and their toy weapons… http://www.artsandopinion.com/2006_v5_n6/from-the-past.htm

  • Pingback: Boys and Violence: It’s Not the Problem…It’s the Solution | unnecessarywisdom


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