Scary Stuff

I know that parents are sometimes worried about their children’s play.  I remember being pretty concerned too, when my 4 year old son was playing the “let’s kill all the babies” game at nursery school (I was pregnant with his sister at the time).  Later, my daughter liked to play that she was a hungry orphan without a home or that she was an evil and abusive step-mother victimizing her pathetic children.  As the daughter of a state child protective services social worker, I wondered at times if I should turn myself in!

Fear not, gentle parents.  Children are learning about kindness and love, even as they play out vicious and cruel themes.  Children gain mastery in many different domains through their play.  When your child is pretending to “bake” a mud pie or “build” a fort, it is easy to see their skill and mastery developing as budding cooks and architects.

Emotional mastery is also developed through imaginary play.  Children create many, many scary situations to practice how to courageously approach frightening situations, how to problem solve, how to build partnerships with others to face the scary situation, etc.  The wonderful thing about this kind of imaginary play is that the child is IN CONTROL of just how scary the situation is, fine tuning the play to keep it exciting but not overwhelming.

This is very different from watching tv, films, and video games, by the way—which compel the child to watch and deal with intense emotional stories created by others.  Having stories read or told to a child, however, is different.  Perhaps it is because children are almost always cuddled up next to the story teller.  But hearing a story also allows the child to still be in control of how vividly they imagine a scary scene.

Children also develop mastery in moral situations by creating and practicing “good guy/bad guy” scenarios in their imaginary play.  Although they have been taught about kindness, patience, generosity, and gentleness—young children are concrete thinkers who learn best through experience.  Play gives them the opportunity to practice what you and other caring teachers have been teaching them about how to be a good person.  This means that while you will certainly see “good guy” values practiced in their play; you are also likely to see them playing the part of the “bad guy” with great enthusiasm.  (Professional actors often report that villains are their favorite roles!)

My theory about this is that children have to pretend through their play to be mean, selfish, and cruel in order to understand what it is to be a “bad guy.”  With a concrete understanding of the experiences of being “a bad guy” as well as “a good guy,” children have the information to make an informed choice about what kind of a person they want to be.

Look at your child’s behavior outside of their play to get a sense of how they are developing as a moral person.  If they are occasionally kind, can be generous, and are sometimes gentle in real life—you can see what kind of values they are developing and practicing.  Although I (and my mother the child protective services social worker,) had some doubts early on, my son, the “baby killer,” was invariably gentle and loving with his sister.  My daughter, the “mean mother,” became the neighborhood’s most affectionate and playful babysitter.  If you worry when your children are creating and playing out their own dramas of being mean, selfish, or hurtful —don’t worry, they are probably just doing their research and safely experiencing “the dark side.”

But, just in case you are still worried, here are some signs that your child’s play may be off track.  If you are in doubt, check with your child’s teachers and perhaps consult with someone who is experienced in appropriate child development:

  • Play that seems “stuck,” always chopping off heads, crashing cars, meanness that is never stopped or overcome.
  • Play that actually hurts others (bites, kicks, hits, etc.) over and over again.  Some hurting is accidental and experimental—but it shouldn’t become habitual.
  • Imaginary or actual cruel play that extends into adolescence, past developmentally appropriate ages and in socially inappropriate ways.