Tuesday, July 31, 2012

They Will Grow Into Gentle, Loving Men

(A while back I posted my Greatest Hits as determined by readership statistics, which then got me thinking about older posts that I wish more people had read, which has now become a sort of irregular series. When I wrote this post we were in the midst of a "raw" time in our school's history. Due to a quirk in demographics, all 9 of our oldest children were boys and while none of them were doing anything out of the ordinary or "bad," all of them together created an intensity that was challenging for many of us. As we tried to walk the balance between the needs of our older children and the fears and frustrations of some of the parents, we had a lot of important discussions about what to "do." This was originally published in January, 2011 under the title "This Is A Complicated Thing." At the bottom of the post you'll find links to others in this series of posts I wish more people had read.)

I've written about this before, but I really do want to know why male primates show a strong preference for toy cars when it comes to choosing with what to play, but no one knows. I haven't even seen a credible sounding theory. Why wheeled vehicles? It doesn't make sense. What did caveman boys play with before the invention of the wheel? Whatever the case, I'm sure the wheel was invented by a tinkering child long before it was adapted for "useful" purposes. 

The universality of play among children across all cultures throughout human history, and indeed across mammal and bird species, indicates that a period of play is adaptive and necessary. That it's the primary way by which we learn in our youth is really, ultimately, why the so-called "education reformers" will fail in their efforts to turn learning into work (although that doesn't mean they can't damage an entire generation of children if parents and teachers don't continue to push back). As the great psychologist Karl Groos wrote:

The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.

Through a quirk of demographics, I've wound up this year with a Pre-K class (my oldest group) of all boys: nine of them. Some are more motivated by cars than others, but they all share to one degree or another their vervet and rheus brothers' preference for playing with cars. If play is essential and cars are universal, then the boys are clearly learning something very important from this kind of play. I can only assume that the survival of our species is dependent upon these boys learning the basic concepts of motion, density, gravity, friction, and momentum, and naturally, they are learning important social skills when they play together, practicing for adult roles when they engage in dramatic play, and bonding as friends over their shared passion, all of which are clearly important.

In the series of photos with which I've illustrated this post, you can see I've used their interest in cars to extend our MLK color mixing experiments from the prior week. Boys aren't always interested in sit-down art projects, but this wasn't one of those times. (I buy a lot of these plain wooden cars from Discount School Supply. I find them useful for all kinds of purposes.)

I don't need to know why, but do want to know.

What I really need to know these days, however, is why boys are so prone to be attracted to violent play. The standard explanation is that they are socialized into it, although I've seen surveys and studies that show gun play and other forms of violet play among boys is pretty universal (although I know of nothing that shows it crossing into the animal kingdom). I'm also not generally disturbed by boys who play superheroes, or soldiers, or pirates, but our 9 boys together, our oldest students, the guys who are looked up to, have begun to feed off one another in a way that is starting to make even me feel like we need to take some action to re-direct their play. It can get pretty intense and, at times, overwhelm some of the younger children who find themselves caught up in it.

It's a delicate balance we need to walk, I think. None of these boys, of course, are actually violent. They are not doing anything "bad" or wrong. In fact, it reminds me very much of my own boyhood when we used to play the same games, big and little boys together, "shooting" and "punching" and saving the world. I also remember it becoming too intense for me at times. I'd come home scared, nervous, and full of disturbing ideas. I'd revert for a few days of playing with my cars or stuffed animals or coloring books, but ultimately I'd always go back.

On Tuesday, we revisited MLK, the great man of peace. I retold them the story, going back to slavery, emphasizing how angry it made people feel and how many of them turned to violence. Then, as I showed them a particularly heroic and patriotic illustration of MLK, I explained how he taught us to fight with words not fists, with love not hate. I then brought up my concerns, emphasizing that some of the younger children, sometimes, were feeling afraid at preschool. They all agreed that they didn't want their friends to feel afraid.

I tried to let them direct the conversation from there as we discussed ways to deal with "bad guys" which quickly became a discussion of Batman, Star Wars, and other fictional depictions of good vs. evil. I responded, each time, "But that's not real, Martin Luther King was real," pointing to the picture I still held. "In the real world," I said, "Words are better than fists."

I'm not sharing this as an example of the right thing to do, but it is what came to me in the moment. And some of the boys even pushed back, insisting that indeed "Star Wars is real. I saw it." (The media is clearly a very potent drug in this question; one we as adults in children's lives must strive to counteract.) But they were engaged. They were sitting together, eyes forward, hands off one another. Most of them said, "Pretend," when I listed examples of popular heros, asking, "Is that real or pretend?" Charlie L. suggested that we could hug or stroke people instead of hitting them. 

I don't want to lecture kids -- that never works -- and I certainly don't want to make them ashamed. It's about empathy, I guess, a notoriously challenging thing to teach young children. I don't want them to stop fantasizing about these heroic figures, but rather to be aware of how their play, especially when it's all 9 of these virtual brothers together, is impacting others. I don't expect them to suddenly become a classroom full of MLKs, but I do want them to understand that in the real world we don't solve our problems with fists or guns.

I suspect that this tendency toward what we label violent play, like the proneness of males to choose to play with cars, is an adaptive trait with roots deeply sunk into our evolutionary past. And just like we don't really know the source of the attraction to wheels, we don't understand the source of the attraction to "violent" play. I know I barely made a dent last Tuesday, but we have 4 more months together. This is a time when they need our adult helping hands.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, about 15 minutes after we'd wrapped up our conversation, I sang our "goodbye song." As parents chatted, some of the boys began to thrust their hands at one another, violently, shouting, "Shock!" They were excited, beaming, alive. It looked like a lot of fun. I've known these boys for a long time. They don't want their classmates to feel afraid. They are gentle, loving boys. They are going to grow into gentle, loving men. 

This is a complicated thing.

UPDATE:  I'm not writing here about aggressiveness or actual violence, but rather pretend violence as part of dramatic play. Labeling preschoolers as aggressive or violent is name-calling and is not acceptable for any adult. If you'd like to read how I really get this point "off my chest," click through to this post: "Aggressive And Violent." You wouldn't call a preschool girl "sexy" or "bitchy." Please do not call boys "aggressive" or "violent."

Other posts I wish more people had read:

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Meagan said...

"I do want them to understand that in the real world we don't solve our problems with fists or guns."

In the real world, many people DO "solve" their problems with fists and guns. Maybe instead of claiming this is pretend, you could point out that the people who do so are far from superheroes? Or maybe not. I'm not sure siting examples of real life bad guys for 4 year olds would be a brilliant move. Even so, saying that thats not what people do in the real world is simply false... I think your attempts to point out that it scares their friends are going to be feel more true. It's not about whether people resort to violence, it's about whether they want to be the sort of people who resort to violence.

Teacher Tom said...

Sorry Meagan, but it is true: misguided people TRY to solve problems with fists or guns, but they only create more problems. That's what MLK reminds us: violence is a spiral in which violence begets more violence.

Problems are always solved with words, not fists. That is a fantasy of the movies and cowboy politicians.

Teacher Tom said...

. . . . I should say that "violence as a SOLUTION is a fantasy of the movies and cowboy politicians."

Jean said...

Thank you for this thoughtful blogpost. While it's true that many people don't even consider something other than a violent solution to perceived problems, or considering, choose for violence anyway, I think it's imperative for us as teachers to plant the seed, and nurture what is the deepest, most compassionate response in the children we teach.
Who or what else is going to counter all the violent reactions they see out 'there'?

A practical question - what surface are the kids using to paint on? We use metal trays for mixing but I like the clarity of what you are using there. Plexiglass? Old (or new) cutting boards?

Terri said...

Hi Tom. I read your blog regularly and really enjoy hearing about your experiences in working with young children. Most of the time you and I seem to share similar perspectives, but I feel the need to question some of your comments from this post. I have a background in anthropology and gender studies, and a lifetime spent among young children. I am now a parent to 3 year old boy/girl twins.

I don't agree that it is "natural" for boys to engage in gun play or superhero worship. Although I do agree that, statistically, boys are more likely to play in a more aggressive way and to be less aware of personal space and boundaries than girls. This, however, does not lead to weapon play, if weapons have never been introduced to a child. My children do not know what a gun is, and they do not know what a "superhero" is because they have not been exposed to these things. We don't watch television, and we are part of a group of parents/children who strive to enforce and model peaceful interactions, and to stay as clear from gender stereotypical assumptions as possible.

I am planning on keeping my children away from a structured school environment, partly because I would like to keep their exposure to gender stereotypical situations as long as possible. Like I said, I am not saying that I don't believe there are personality traits and characteristics that are more common among males/females, but I definitely think that a large portion of what gets expressed is due to societal pressure and exposure to media that sends a message about what a "man" or "woman" should be or do.

I would like for my children to develop a strong sense of self and resilience before they are exposed to messages that could be internalized and become limiting. One of the most damaging aspects of the sort of gendered behaviors you are describing in this post, is that it can turn into gender "negating". It is so sad to see children gender segregating themselves at such a young age and ridiculing behavioral attributes they ascribe to the opposite gender. It will be a sorrowful day for me if I ever hear one of my children say that they don't want to play with something/do something/be something because it's "for girls/boys".

Terri said...

I should clarify, it didn't sound like the kids in your group were doing any gender negating. I was meaning to say, in my final paragraph above, that strong gender identification with only male role models and stereotypical male activities and behavior can easily lead to negative opinions of potential female role models or stereotypical gender traits. I guess my question is, would a boy who was not interested in the more stereotypical boy activities and who maybe was even into dressing up and caring for dolls be accepted and feel welcome in the classroom you describe in this post? Would he take home the message that these were not acceptable boy activities?

Anonymous said...

At our centre we have boys who have long running interests in family play (which we encourage)- nurturing dolls etc... but they adore hero play as well (be that fire-fighter, doctor, superhero) the girls dabble in it but I agree that there seems to be a persistancy almost a compulsion with our boys.

We just discussed how to deal with it as a cooperative. One thing we are a discussing is are all the children involved consenting in the play? So teaching the kids to ask first before engaging in rough and tumble etc. They all attend mixed age sessions and have all made wonderful choices in terms of not engaging little kids in rough and tumble, and choosing not to do face paint when a girl who is scared of facepaint is on session... keep up with those conversations about looking out for each others feelings.

Teacher Tom said...

@Jean . . . Those are pieces of Plexi-glas.

Teacher Tom said...

I'd be curious Terri, if you could point me to some reliable anthropological works that have found cultures in which boys are not drawn to dramatic action play, including weapons. Everything I can find shows pretend weapon play in boys is pretty consistent across cultures -- as is wheel play. Naturally, they aren't all attracted to it, but a statistically significant number are.

And no, we don't typically have a problem with what you call gender negating. It was more about getting into their "band of brothers" play and not always taking the time to look around at how their play was impacting others.

Shannah said...

Hello there,
Long time reader, first time poster:)
This post hits home to me for many reasons. My youngest son seems to be General Patton reincarnated. I finally had to accept his nature and appreciate his need to fight, protect, practice power, and feel brave. I think these are all qualities needed to be powerful peacekeepers too!

Being nonviolent doesn't mean being passive. Protesters/peacekeepers have to be strong, brave, powerful, and fight in a different way. I like your connection here to MLK and the superhero discussion. You are so right, the empathy/awareness piece is key.

Terri said...

I didn't say that boys aren't likely to be more drawn to aggressive play. Males are also much more likely to commit violent crimes, cross culturally. This doesn't mean, however, that we should accept this as inevitable. In fact, I'd argue that it is precisely because boys (statistically) are more prone to aggressive play that exposure to external stimuli, like weapons, should be avoided as long as possible, instead of indulged in. There is an acceptance of aggressive male behavior in our culture (and in most cultures) that is justified with the argument that it's just "boys being boys". Murder is cross cultural, rape is cross cultural, and yes, weapon play is cross cultural. I don't think that these things can be eliminated from humanity, but I do think that it should be a goal to do everything we can to at least not encourage them.

My point, in saying that weapon play isn't "natural", was that although boys are more likely to play aggressively, they don't turn things into weapons if they don't know what a weapon is. A child may "hit" with a stick, but if he/she is taught that one should never hit, then that proclivity to use objects aggressively will not turn into "weapon" play.

Terri said...

@ anonymous,
I like your policy of encouraging the children to ask for consent before engaging in a particular type of play. This was always my policy when working with children, and now as a parent, and so far, it has worked quite well for teaching children to respect the boundaries and preferences of others.

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you for clarifying, Terri.

I'm not writing about aggressiveness here or violence. I'm writing about PRETEND violence among preschoolers. There's a big difference. One comes out of a background that likely involves abuse or being witness to abuse; the other is simply dramatic play. We must be careful here. Calling this kind of play aggressive or violent is name-calling of the worst kind: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/aggressive-and-violent.html

Terri said...

I have read, and agree with your post on the dangers of labeling children. I would not think of labeling the individual children you were describing as "violent" or "aggressive". However, I do not think it inappropriate to use the terms to describe behaviors. If my daughter were to intentionally hit her brother because she was angry at him, I would describe that as an aggressive behavior. In my reading of what you are describing between the boys in your group, however, I don't think that the behaviors would even be called "aggressive" because they appear to be consensual.

Consensual physical contact play is not the type of thing I am referring to in my concerns. I have concerns with play that involves weapons, and violence, even if it is pretend. Again, I am not saying that the children involved are themselves violent, or aggressive children. I simply draw the line at playing at something as serious as physically harming another human being (violence). There are many other outlets for physical play, and rough-and-tumble interactions.

Shellee said...

I just read a book called, "Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. (both phsycologists that have worked primarily with boys for over twenty years). It's a great read and really gives some enlightening insights to "boy behavior" and how to understand boys. Girls and boys are just different and you cannot deal with them in the same manner most of the time. They just process differently.

Also, "The wonder of Boys" by Michael Gurian. Same kind of subject matter, although I have only read about the first third and liked it, so the rest might be trash. Both are old, so you may have to get them used on Amazon.

But these books really opened my eyes, I'm just a regular person and mom, about boys. Even helped me understand my husband better. :)

On a side note, I have a boy of 6 years and a girl of 3 years and they haven't been pushed toward any toys or behavior consciously. But he LOVES blue, cars, and "war play" and she LOVES pink, fairies, and princesses (also cars and "war play" but secondarily). My husband hates "war play" as I do, so they didn't learn it from us, and I'm not a pink and fairy lover, but she got it from somewhere deep inside her. It's nature more than nurture here.

We can't fight their desire to play this way, and instead help by injecting moments to learn through it. We help them understand that "war play" must have empathy involved and that killing is sad and unneccessary. But the play goes on and some toy always gets killed. Then, together they put the baby cuddlies to sleep. :)