Friday, October 11, 2013

The Price Of A Bandaid Or Two

Both practically and denotatively the word aggressive can be used to describe positive traits, but connotatively, especially when used to describe children's behavior, it is a slur, and it is a slur almost exclusively leveled at boys. When I was traveling Down Under with Niki Buchan, she would speak of this kind of dramatic play as boys acting out the role of protectors, which historically has been one of the fundamental male roles in every society to have ever existed. A couple nights ago at our 5's class parent meeting, we went around the circle providing thumbnail sketches of our kids. Naturally, none of the parents of boys described their own child as aggressive, although many of them said their sons liked to assume the roles of soldiers, detectives, police officers, superheroes, fire fighters, or Jedi warriors.

One of our most popular workbench activities involves toilet paper tubes, masking tape, scraps of theater lighting gel, and scissors. More often than not we wind up making loads of binoculars and light sabers. This time we also made colorful face shields.

As I wrote a couple of days ago when discussing an article by researcher and author Peter Gray, the foundational role of play in childhood is to practice skills, to educate oneself, for the future. When one watches, say, lion cubs playing, it's obvious in their lurking, sneaking, and pouncing that they're working on their hunting skills, sometimes serving as predator and sometimes a prey, the way children often pretend to be bad guys and good guys in their protector games. And experimenting with both sides of protector games is vital to this process, providing children with a view from the other side, which not only makes us more effective protectors, but also more empathetic protectors.

Make no mistake, many of our girls engage in these protector/action games as well, often labeling their "weapons" as wands.

I think what sets us as a society off about this kind of play, what makes us slur it with the word aggressive, is that we all know that the tools of protection are sometimes used by older children and adults in sociopathic ways: fighting, threatening, bullying, and to commit atrocities. There has never been a connection drawn between this type of childhood play and future anti-social behavior. There have been many studies, however, that have found links between a lack of play and violent behavior. Still, we worry about it, label it, and ask how we can make it stop.

Camaraderie is one of the great positives that comes out of this kind of play, as is teamwork and empathy.

Yes, there is a very real potential for children engaged in this behavior to injure themselves or others, which is to a certain extent a "feature" of the play. This is why we keep an eye on things, watching facial expressions and body language, staying wary of those moments when children cross the line from dramatic play into emotions like anger and fear. This is why, when things get intense, I often try to keep my body physically in the middle of it, often role modeling self-protective language like, "Hey, you almost hit me with that!" or "That scares me!" And this is why we remind our children that we've all agreed that when anyone says, "Stop!" everyone must pause to negotiate some aspect of the game.

Reading the faces of others is an important life skill. There is anger and then there is pretend anger, for instance. The differences are subtle and figuring out the difference takes practice.

Every adult, of course, must handle this in the way that makes her feel the most comfortable, but I'm one of those who tends to hang back, watchfully, trying to not insert myself at every sign of "danger," because I know that each time I do, I'm robbing children of the chance to learn something important. I've been a little too late sometimes, but most of the time, if I give them the chance, they figure it out for themselves, apologizing, negotiating, and deciding together. This is a lesson well worth the price of a bandaid or two.

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Unknown said...


I'm a longtime lurker, first time commenter.

I'm working on my Master's thesis right now, (in Seattle) regarding peer aggression (aka bullying) and I'm working on an argument for play-based curriculum as not a bullying intervention, but as a way to prevent the systemic sickness that produces the symptom of bullying in the first place.

You mentioned studies that link lack of play and violent behavior. Could you link to some of those?


Heidi said...

Great post. What is helpful for a child who consistently has a hard time stopping?

Unknown said...

This is the first time I have read your blog and I am seriously impressed! As a mum of a 3yr old boy, I try to let natural consequences help me teach, and this is a brilliant take on the kind of play I think I would have tried to rule out. Thank you for a wonderful perspective.

Teacher Tom said...

@Adam . . . I was particularly thinking of the work of Stuart Brown.

Teacher Tom said...

@Heidi . . . Like with most things: repetition and lots of discussion.

Unknown said...

This topic really hits home with me. I have a 3 year old that seems to me, very aggressive/rough. Not just in play, but in all that he does. His interactions with me, his pets, himself. I guess I am just wondering if you feel there is a difference between a child that engages in rough play and one that seems to be that way in all that he does?

Teacher Tom said...

Aeryn . . . I don't think what you're talking about is the same thing. Some kids need coaching on "gentleness." Maybe they hug too hard or hit when they want to stroke. It's often a function of too much love/enthusiasm. Others have sensory processing issues that make this more challenging. But please don't use the word "aggressive" about young children. It really is a slur.