This is a response to a question from a mother about violent themes in her young son’s play. She was particularly concerned about pretend gun play.
I am so glad you asked. Yes, this play has a very important function. Your child is learning to manage, contain and control his aggressive impulses. Everyone has aggressive impulses. We all get angry, jealous or afraid. We all have the desire, conscious or unconscious, to latch out and hurt someone. Play gives children the opportunity to explore and work through these feelings without hurting anyone. Children who act out these feeling through play they have less need to do so in ‘real life.’ While you find his play disturbing it actually is helpful to your long term goal of raising a peaceful, non-violent young man.
In a typical case a family sought my help because their 4-year-old son was very aggressive. When taken to a playground the child would walk over and hit another child on the heard, apparently without any provocation. Nothing the parents had tried, reasoning, scolding, times outs, had been effective. They were embarrassed by the behavior and worried about their son’s future. I asked the parents to play with their son in my office while I observed. The parents were warm, loving and engaged with their son, but whenever his play veered to symbolic violence they steered the play in another direction. Within a few minutes I understood the crux of the problem. The boy was being thwarted in his attempts to act out his aggression symbolically so he was doing it physically. I worked with the parents and taught them to respond to the child’s play in a supportive, non-judgmental manor. As the child was able to communicate about his feelings with his parents through play and receive a loving, non-judgmental response, the aggressive behavior disappeared.
Like many parents, you seem more comfortable with sword play than guns. Of course real swords are much less dangerous than real guns, and we are not experiencing a rash of sword violence in our communities. So pretend sword fights are less likely to trigger a negative responses in adults. On the other hand pretend gun play is much less dangerous than sword play. When children are having pretend gun battles they are standing several feet apart and pointing their fingers at one another. When children are having pretend sword fights they are standing close together pointing long sticks or pieces of plastic at each other. To solve this problem I recommend a foam pool noodle cut in half. This makes two really good swords (or light sabers for SiFi fans). No matter how hard you are hit with a foam noodle it really doesn’t hurt. Other great props for aggressive play are nerf guns that shoot foam ‘bullets’ when squeezed, rolled up socks or cotton balls. These can be aimed and thrown hard at each other without causing injury. Although extended battles often cause a lot of giggling. For children who want to be lords of their own world miniature dinosaurs, wild animals, knights and pirates are great props for acting out aggressive fantasies.
Although your questions was specifically about a boy I want to say that acting out aggressive impulses through play is equally important for girls. Although less likely to become physically violent girls who have trouble managing their aggression may become social bullies. Violent play in girls is often more subtle and may go unnoticed by parents because it does not involve guns and battles. Girls are more likely to spend their time mixing up poisons, protecting themselves and their young from monsters and placing their babysitters in jail, “for the rest of your life.” Even so girls should have access to props for aggressive play. The toy guns and canons in my office get used more frequently and enthusiastically by girls than by boys. Perhaps because they have less access to them outside my office.
I hope that by understanding the need for this play it will become less troublesome for you. If you can respond to your son with empathy and without judgement when he engages in this play it is more likely to stay in the symbolic realm. If ‘bang-bang’ sounds continue to bother you limit them in a way that gives you respite without giving him the message that this play is wrong. ‘No guns in the house.” is an acceptable rule if there are other times and ways to work through this aggression.
Good luck to you and your son. Remember that by playing with toy guns and battles your son is working on the same goal you have, to become an adult in control of, rather than controlled by, his aggressive impulses.