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Published in Print: April 1, 2002, as Weapons Of Instruction

Weapons Of Instruction

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Toy guns and swords can help kids make sense of the world, so long as they know the difference between fantasy and reality.

As a commentator on American culture—as well as a writer for comic books and an author of graphic novels—I've gathered hundreds of stories, over the years, about young people who have benefited from superhero comics, action movies, cartoons, shoot-'em-up video games, and rap and rock songs. What I've discovered is that children often turn to fantasies of combat in order to feel stronger, to access their emotions, to take control of their anxieties, to calm themselves down in the face of real violence. They don't always use these fantasies well. Sometimes they need help. But they often use them splendidly to fight through emotional challenges and lift themselves to new developmental levels.

One story in particular reflects the problem our society has in dealing with issues of violence in realistic ways. Gina Weinberg, a former public school teacher who'd quit her job to become a full-time mother, soon found herself facing one of her biggest fears.

"When Harrison was very little, we took him to the circus, and he wanted one of those light-up swords they sell there," she told me. "We said no, but he really wanted it. And he wanted to know why he couldn't have it. It was the first time [my husband] Allen and I had encountered this situation, but we'd been discussing how we would respond to it since before he was born. We said, 'Because swords are for hurting people, and we're afraid that playing with one will teach you to really hurt people.' "

First as a teacher and now as a mother, Gina was striving to be thoughtful and conscientious. She described herself and her husband as "like any new parents, insecure and not having a clue, relying on what society says is the right way to raise a child. And every message I was getting from society and the media was that violent play and violent media would teach children to be violent. So our rule was no swords, no guns, no TV shows or cartoons that showed anyone hurting anyone else."

They also feared that aggressive play would exacerbate Harrison's trouble in modulating his anger. He tended to feel almost every negative emotion—sadness, fear, embarrassment—as anger. He'd yell, throw things, slam doors.

Gina and Allen could see that Harrison was troubled by his inability to control his impulses. He enjoyed helping enforce the no-violence rule at first. Gina would take him shopping for Lego sets, and he'd say: "Wait, Mom, we can't get this one. You see that little knight in the back? He's got a sword!" Denying his own desire for toy weapons seemed to give him a feeling of strength.

The situation changed as Harrison's little brother, Joseph, grew older. By the time Joseph was 3 and Harrison was 6, the younger boy was displaying a passion for swords. "I don't even know where he got the idea," exclaimed Gina. "Suddenly everything he touched became a sword." At first she tried taking them away, but Joseph would always turn a broom or a pencil into a weapon. His parents started calling these toys the "long things," telling Joseph that he could play with them only if he used them like a magic wand. He tried, but the "long things" kept turning back into swords. "Finally," Gina said, "I realized that this little guy needed to have sword fights. I wasn't sure why. But I could just see that he needed them."

Soon after the sword rule was relaxed, the Columbine killings occurred. Gina felt bombarded, by the news media and other parents, with the message that the two shooters had been turned into murderers by video games and movies. Harrison's preschool teacher had felt that violent play led to violent reality. Not only did she forbid combat-related toys of any kind, but whenever a child acted out aggressively, she'd draw the parents aside and ask what he was being allowed to watch or play with at home.

Children often turn to fantasies of combat in order to feel stronger, to access their emotions, to take control of their anxieties.

Gina wondered if she was making a terrible mistake by allowing toy weapons. But Allen didn't. He'd had a typical 1960s boyhood, had loved toy guns and war movies, but had grown up to be a pacifist. "I told him what I was hearing all around me," Gina recalled, "that the world is more violent now, media violence is worse now, and so all this stuff is riskier."

By that time, I'd encountered Harrison myself. He was in the same kindergarten class as my son, and he was clearly one of the most boisterous and imaginative students. I ran a comic strip workshop in the classroom, and of all the stories, many of them filled with action and combat, his stood out among the rest for its joyful, explosive, fantastical violence. His protagonist was a fire-bellied toad who jumped through a series of deadly traps featuring whirling knives and then squashed his opponents, the "froggie killers," flat. As he walked me through these huge, colorful images, his face was split in a huge grin. He glowed with excitement over his comical mayhem, but he checked my reaction, too-more often and more intently than most kids. The more I liked it, the more he glowed.

I learned later that Harrison's imaginings had become the bases for the class's favorite recess games. Both boys and girls would divide into teams of "froggies" and "froggie killers" and fight ferocious wars. Under slightly altered forms, like the "nature savers" vs. the "nature killers," the games continued even into the 2nd grade. "Superfrog" became a legend as he squashed, devoured, and burned up villains to "keep the classroom safe." Outside of his house, Harrison consistently generated his peer group's most thrilling, and happiest, fantasies of bloodshed, combat, and superheroism.

At home, meanwhile, Harrison and Joseph put pressure on their parents to make a decision about violent play. Harrison, in particular, was having a tough time managing his anger. As he became more self-aware, anxiety over his inability to control his reactions intensified. He frequently behaved regressively. If something or someone disappointed him, for example, one way to stifle his anger was to pretend to be a baby and make cutesy crying noises. His parents tried to help him find a middle ground between the extremes, but it was difficult.

Joseph was also intense, but more adept at dealing with anger than Harrison had been at the same age. "We noticed that both of them did better when they played together," Gina told me, "and they usually did best when the play was about some sort of power or fight fantasy. The more we saw that working, the more we relaxed our rules. We even bought this little toy that flings foam darts—as close to a real gun as I could allow myself."

Then Allen started sharing his love of military vehicles and equipment with Harrison. Gina asked him, "Don't you think that might glorify war for him, or make him want to join the military someday?" Allen just laughed and said: "Trust me. I've loved this stuff my whole life. Nothing ever made me want to join the military. Not for an instant."

Next Allen started playing a police game with the kids. Harrison loved arresting and handcuffing his father.

"That's when the lights started to go on for me," said Gina. "All these games made him feel powerful. We're so afraid of kids getting out of control, or going in some direction that we can't control, that we forget how little control they have. Harrison feels like he can't control his own emotional reactions, he can't control his brother or the anger that his brother brings up in him, he can't really control his own life. Of course he needs to feel powerful."

By the time Harrison reached 2nd grade, Gina wanted to lift all her restrictions against make-believe violence, but she still felt afraid. So she consulted Eric Stein, a psychologist who has a particular interest in play and fantasy. To Gina's surprise, Stein let his young clients play with toy guns in his office. She asked him what she might be teaching her children by allowing them to do the same.

His answer was simple, but it was a revelation. He told Gina that one of the biggest challenges children face is distinguishing between fantasy and reality. One of our most important tasks as adults is to help them make that distinction. And the way to do that is to let them have their fantasies.

We're so afraid of kids getting out of control, or going in some direction that we can't control, that we forget how little control they have, says one mother.

"All of a sudden, it hit me that all this time I had been confusing fantasy and reality," Gina recalled. "This is a little boy with a plastic sword, and I'm telling him, 'This might make you into a violent person.' Think how confusing that must be when you're little. Instead of hearing a parent say, 'That's a toy, that's fantasy, there's no real danger in it, you have complete power over it,' he's hearing me say, 'That scares me, that's more powerful than you are, that's going to turn you into a killer!' "

Gina said she wants her sons to understand that they can imagine anything, pretend anything, want anything. They can be mad at someone in their minds, pretend they're shooting them, squashing them with a steamroller—anything. They just shouldn't do, it. "Teaching them the difference between thinking and doing is my main job," she added, "and if my fears send the message that what they play or see on some TV show is equivalent to real violence, that just completely blows it out of the water!" She caught herself and laughed. "Blows it out of the water! Is that a violent image or what?"

The essence of making sense of violent entertainment, toys, and games is differentiating between what these things mean to kids and what they mean to adults. Parents should let their kids experience fantasy as fantasy while teaching them about reality. We also have to see our own fantasies as fantasies, our own fears simply as fears, and distinguish these clearly from the reality of kids' relationships with violence.

Gina still limits the amount of television Harrison and Joseph watch but more because of the limitations of the medium, not its violent content. She still makes sure that all forms of entertainment in her house are age-appropriate, and she tries not to let the boys' play get so wild that anyone is hurt. But she leaves the rest up to their own tastes and fantasies. Harrison still has some trouble modulating his emotions, but now he far more often finds the middle ground that his parents hoped he would.

"The change I see," Gina said, "is that when he's playing policeman or soldier now, or when he's showing me his drawings of Superfrog being strafed by an F-16 or whatever, I see a Harrison that I never saw enough of before. He's an 8-year- old! Just a happy, confident, playful boy who isn't afraid of his own feelings. I can see the worry about whether he can handle his impulses lifting from him. And I can see that that in itself gives him more power over them."


Vol. 13, Issue 7, Pages 39-41

:: Web Resources

  • In a March 28, 2001 interview, "Kids and Violent Play,"Education World talks with Jane Katch, author of Under Dead Man's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play. "It is helpful for a teacher or a parent to set rules for physical and emotional safety as clearly as possible," says Ms. Katch.
  • "Are Violent Video Games Too Real for Kids?," an Oct. 31, 2001 article from ABCNews.com, provides playtime tips for parents. Says psychologist Karen Binder-Brynes, "Children, particularly boys, are playing video games right now because they feel out of control. It does give them a temporary sense of some type of control."
  • "Raising Children to Resist Violence: What You Can Do," from the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests limiting television viewing time and talking to children about violence they witness.
  • "Pediatricians warn that media violence can be especially damaging to children under age 8 because they cannot readily tell the difference between real life and fantasy," writes author Mary A. Hepburn in "Violence in Audio-Visual Media: How Educators Can Respond," an April 2001 ERIC Digest.
  • "Computer Games like Quake and Doom probably won't turn your son into a killer. But what is happening to kids raised on the most violent, interactive mass-media entertainment ever devised?," asks author Paul Keegan in the November 1999 article "Culture Quake," posted by Mother Jones.
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