“Boys will be boys” is a catch-phrase tossed up by over-worked and under-resourced early childhood educators when concerned parents query playground etiquette. But when children as young as four years old are playing games that involve “shooting all the girls in the heart”, capturing and “killing” each other, and targeting any children who do not actively choose to play with this group, a radical reassessment is required.
“Processing” is Only Half the Job
The philosophy of play-based learning is a valuable and important model for education, and it is vital for children to use play to “process”. However, in the book Hold On To Your Kids1, Gordon Neufeld makes a strong case against unsupervised peer-assisted processing via play. Parents and teachers should be especially concerned regarding under-supervised and unrestricted re-enactment of violent, aggressive, and sexist scenarios. PG-rated media recommends “parental guidance” in the viewing of such, but the forgotten inference is that children might also require adult guidance in processing what they have seen. Play that involves processing of unusual or anti-social elements benefits from adult input, as children who are trying to make sense of such elements are often lacking the necessary context, and continue to repeat the exercise over and over precisely because of a failure to resolve their subconscious questions.
A lack of adult intervention and response could send the message that adults endorse what the child has seen, and the child must continue to process and learn to act in the way the media makes it seem desirable and necessary to act. Neural pathways become trained due to the fixation of the child on processing. A child who is able to immediately discuss and play out anti-social media content with a trusted adult is less likely to insist on continuing with the game when requested to stop, and more likely to be open to a variety of play options. Robin Grille, in Parenting for a Peaceful World2, states that “…we are not necessarily born to choose violence as if it is the only solution to territorial or resource disputes. Furthermore, it is often the case that human violence… is what creates resource scarcity in the first place.” Educators have a small window of opportunity in early childhood to “rewire” the neural pathways of potential “problem” children and, child by child, improve outcomes for future generations.
The entitlement of a few children to process via play the violence and sexism they are noticing in visual media comes at the expense of the comfort, security, and innocence of other children attempting to use the same space. Affected children are no longer able to play freely and express themselves fully without attracting negative attention from more dominant children who command particular areas as their “territory”. Even as young as four years old, children seem to instinctively understand the unofficial, child-made “rules” that activities requiring certain equipment and resources that are exclusive to these commandeered areas become activities that are “only for boys”. Less assertive children must modify their experience to fit around those children who have assumed the privilege of controlling the space (the physical space and the psychological space). This mimics the patriarchic model of our society – but, far from being helpful in teaching children how to navigate the real world, this setup only serves to cement their places in the hierarchy based on their sex and fosters the sense of entitlement in the dominant group that is at the root of anti-social conflict. Every child should have an equal opportunity to play, socialise, and learn, as long as their play does not interfere with the wellbeing of other children.
Consent and Burden of Responsibility
When a single group begins to dominate a playground devoid of adult supervision, basic courtesy and respect fall away very easily. Requests to “Stop!” are ignored because there is no adult to enforce them. Very young children who are reminded to tell an adult in such a situation become hesitant and insecure in their demeanour, indicating that the need to seek out an adult and form a coherent report causes discomfort and it is unlikely such a child will consider this a viable solution in the moment. Again, this might be considered a method of learning to handle real life situations and developing the ability to approach authority figures for help, but this is learning from a position of weakness instead of a position of strength and confidence, and serves to entrench submissive behaviour and a sense of futility. In her article on city planning, Caroline Criado-Perez comments in reference to a study completed in 1996-97 in Vienna that when girls had to “compete with boys for space, they tended to lose, because they were less assertive.”3 This lack of assertiveness is not innate; it is learnt through repeated situations where boys are allowed to get away with aggressive behaviour and girls are praised for being “good” and “ladylike”.
Further, placing the onus on a targeted child to leave the situation, find a teacher, and attempt to explain the problem and ask for help exacerbates the discomfort the child feels, and therefore it is increasingly likely the child will instead choose to try and ignore the problem (putting up with anti-social behaviour; reluctantly joining in with games that target others negatively; or abandoning the desired activity that is affected by the presence of domineering children). This expectation of the victim to come forward is at the heart of our society’s current violence-culture where an abuser is entitled to continue their behaviour until they are caught (and, often, prior victims only speak up once someone else has first pressed charges). We, as a society, have an opportunity to change this script at a pre-school and primary school level by emphasising kindness towards others and constantly practicing consent so that it becomes ingrained.
Teachers can handle these situations by occasionally interrupting more boisterous games and asking children to check in, sharing messages like:
• “If s/he is not having fun, you have to stop.”
• “Have you asked X if s/he wants to play this way?”
• “The other children are doing their own activities; they are not here to be your targets.”
Unfortunately, it is likely such important instruction by the teachers is met with defiance and what psychologist Otto Rank terms “counterwill” (an instinctive resistance to being forced)4. Gordon Neufeld maintains that, without an attachment to the adult offering guidance, it is very difficult for a child to overcome counterwill and internalise such messages. It is only through play with an adult (participating or supervising) that these messages will sink in.
The Damage of Second-Hand Exposure
Using play to process difficult-to-grasp scenarios is valuable for children. Ideally, such play would occur at home with an aware adult present to assist with the processing – asking and answering questions, providing context, and giving guidance and alternative options, or, less desirable but still acceptable, where such play occurs in a parentally-supervised public space, such as a park or playground, the parents of potentially affected children are able to either remove their children or give their children immediate context, guidance, and tools to deal with the situation. However, in a location with low parental attendance (such as a school, early learning centre, or day care centre), by having a scenario played out in front of them (for example, a killing scene from a TV show), previously unexposed children also now require the means to process what they have witnessed second-hand. Even children who were simply on the periphery might go home and pretend to “shoot” a safe adult (a parent or grandparent, perhaps) in a delayed subconscious attempt to discover context and to be given explanations and guidance. Schools and other such environments are not the appropriate places for unsupervised processing of media rated PG and above. “Parental Guidance” is recommended for such media for good reason, but adult guidance should ideally also include the subsequent re-enactment and processing.
Ideally children seeking to play violent games at these centres would be immediately redirected into a different physical activity with the close attention of a teacher. The redirection is not meant to be punitive – “attention-seeking” children seek attention for valid reasons, and attention-resistant children have possibly already put up walls that will begin to limit their interactions with others. Although the ratio of staff to children might make it seem undesirable to focus more staff attention on one particular “problem” group, there is a potentially positive impact of increased supervision where an entire situation affects a number of children beyond the initial group. This includes clarification of the messages being sent regarding consent, etc., and the withdrawal of implied endorsement of aggression and sexism due to a previous lack of adult intervention.
In summary, there are learning opportunities for three groups of children:
• those who are seeking to process their viewing of aggressive TV shows and games
• those who are friends with the first group but not viewers of the shows
• and those who are negatively affected by the play of the other two groups
Valuable lessons regarding consent are possible for all three groups. The first group could:
• access help to process what should be seen as an incongruity between real-world social values and fantasy/fictional violence
• reset their perception of others as human beings not targets
• have a chance to ask questions and receive ideas for alternative games.
If members of the second group are only reluctantly participating due to peer pressure:
• they could be given a “way out”
• they can be taught how to stand up to someone stronger than them
• they would be shielded from learning about content that their parents might not appreciate them being exposed to (even second-hand)
• and it could break the cycle of mob mentality.
The third group would benefit from being backed up immediately when they say “No!” or “Stop!”, reinforcing their right to consent, rather than allowing them to be intimidated into acceptance or withdrawal.
An environment supervised by a limited number of adults is not the appropriate place for a sub-group of children to process aggressive or sexist scenarios, and particularly for such games to escalate to the pressured inclusion or targeting of other children.
If teachers are willing to prepare redirection games ahead of time, and immediately engage particular groups of children in these, telling them that games involving weapons (including imaginary or constructed weapons) and games that target other children are not suitable, and strongly reinforcing consent, this will improve the outcomes for many of the children affected by such a situation.
This essay is written from a parent’s perspective. I am not an expert in this field.
1Neufeld, Gordon and Mate, Gabor. 2006. Hold On To Your Kids : Ballantine Books, 2006
2Grille, Robin. 2008. Parenting for a Peaceful World : The Children’s Project, 2008. Page 10
3Criado-Perez, Caroline. 2016. “What works for men doesn’t work for everyone”: why cities need to start planning with women in mind. CityMetric, UK : retrieved from CityMetric.com
4Amundson, Jon. 1981. Will in the Psychology of Otto Rank: A Transpersonal Perspective (PDF). Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Vol. 13 No. 2 Page 113. : retrieved from atpweb.org
Empty Swing by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Boy and Lion by Sarah Richter from Pixabay
Girl on a Swing with City Skyline by composita from Pixabay
Barbie Smothered in Child’s Hand (“Oppression”) by Isabella Quintana from Pixabay
Water Fight by Rudy Anderson from Pixabay
Elle Carter Neal is the author of the middle-grade chapter book The Convoluted Key, picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, holding childhood slumber-party audiences entranced until the early hours of the morning. Elle decided to be an author the day she discovered that real people wrote books and that writing books was a real job.