Should Parents Be Concerned About Violent Play?

It may surprise you to learn that your child's interest in imaginary violence can be normal, even healthy. Experts explain when you shouldn't worry and when you should step in.

Back in January, my 5-year-old daughter had her best friend over for a playdate. After drawing together for a while, the girls ran out to our backyard. When I checked on them a little later, I heard delighted shrieks, much banging of sticks, and then a gleeful "I got you!"

"Do you need a snack when you're done getting the bad guys?" I asked them.

"Oh no," my daughter told me with a beatific smile. "We're the bad guys! We have guns, and we're shooting everyone in the village dead!"

It was one of those parenting crossroad moments: Do I confiscate the sticks? Tell them that village-cide is against house rules? Call the other parents and alert them that our daughters are showing mass-homicidal tendencies?

None of the above, according to Jane Katch, an educator and author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play. "All children love to play good guys and bad guys because it's how they explore what it means to be powerful. And if you're a rule-following kid most of the time, it's really fun to pretend to be the bad guy."

Children have long been intrigued and delighted by imaginary violence, from Hansel and Gretel being nearly eaten by a witch to Harry Potter waging life-or-death wars against evil. Any parent who's seen a child turn a banana or a finger into a gun to vanquish evildoers at snacktime can attest to that. But as modern parents, we understandably worry about real violence like school shootings and bomb threats. So if your child has graduated from playing kitchen to engaging in a pretend war, you may be wondering whether those violent imaginings are healthy—and how you should respond. I asked a few experts for insight and advice that every parent can use.

When It’s Normal

The truth is, pretend violence is almost always normal. "There's no such thing as violent play," says Parents advisor Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain. "Violence is an effort to hurt someone. But play, by definition, is fun. So whatever the game is, if children are playing and nobody is frightened or hurt, then it's not violence."

Experts agree that this kind of pretend play is an essential part of learning to be a person. "Kids can't always verbalize their ideas, so they deal with themes that intrigue or worry them through play," says Katch. Don't assume that a child's game involving guns or death means the same thing to him as it does to you. Kids can't fully grasp the permanence of death until they are between the ages of 6 and 9, says Dr. Thompson, and unless they've been directly exposed to real violence, they lack the historical and social context adults have. A game about flying a plane into a building doesn't trigger memories of 9/11; it may just be something that sounds fun.

But when play is inspired by real experiences, it's even more important. "If we stop the play, we halt the conversation," says Katch. Play is how children process troubling situations. The first time my daughter engaged in gun play, she pretended to be a pirate shooting sharks, and told me it was "so they'd stop biting people and taking their blood." It alarmed me until I remembered we'd been to the doctor's office that week for a blood draw. By playing it out, she was making sense of a scary experience. "This is how kids gain mastery over confusion or fear," says Katch.

You don't have to love your child's fascination with shooting or explosions, but there's no need to panic. "The worst thing we can do is give kids the sense that their fantasy life is bad or wrong," says Katch. And just as 5-year-olds who play doctor don't automatically go to medical school, violent games aren't a sign of a troubled mind. "There is no study that shows a correlation—much less a causation—between childhood play and adult violence," notes Dr. Thompson.

In fact, research suggests that pretend aggression may actually have benefits. In one study, Karla Fehr, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies childhood pretend play at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, watched preschoolers play independently, then asked their teachers to report on levels of aggression in the classroom. Dr. Fehr found that the kids who explored more antagonistic themes in their play were less likely to show aggression in their other daily interactions. "Those kids were more likely to share and take turns," she reports. "It may be that aggressive play provides children with a way to work through their emotions."

When It’s Not OK

Of course, just because pretend violence is usually healthy doesn't mean you should ignore it. "It's important to stay connected to your child's activities," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., professor of early-childhood education at Wheelock College, in Boston, and co-author of The War Play Dilemma. Understanding the themes and topics that fascinate your child can give you a peek into what's on her mind, whether it's the popular new video game or how she felt about the latest lockdown drill at school or social-distancing requirements.

Your primary job is to make sure that the play stays safe and consensual. Even when a game starts out fun, kids may become frightened by their own (super-powerful!) imaginations or by physical aspects like chasing and wrestling that get too intense. Dr. Thompson says that's all the more reason to keep an open mind: "If you go in and shut down their game, children can become defensive or sneak around," he explains. "But if you start by appreciating what's fun about the game, they'll be more willing to admit if it's scaring them a bit."

Experts do start to worry about violent themes if a child is repeatedly playing out a story line that she seems stuck on and anxious about, and can't resolve. "In that situation, you could help your child come up with a resolution to the story," says Dr. Fehr. For example, could the hero develop a superpower to defeat the bad guy? Can a new character, like a doctor, come in to help save a character who keeps getting hurt? If the play is linked to a traumatic experience, or your child has been exposed to real violence, consider finding a therapist to help your child process her feelings.

You'll also want to take action if play involves the kind of aggression that hurts someone. That may be a sign that your child is having trouble regulating emotions and impulses. It's worth mentioning to your pediatrician if you often see your child engaging in violence without a story line attached—bashing one toy into another, over and over again. And you should also take note if you think your child is struggling to differentiate between fantasy and reality or if he's exhibiting true violent tendencies toward pets or younger children. With older children, pay attention to whether the violent story themes are targeting one particular child. "Elementary-school girls, especially, can use pretend play as a way to exclude children or even disguise bullying," notes Katch.

When It’s Culture

If you hear disturbing imagery in your child's play—heads exploding, limbs ripped off—the question to ask is: Where is she getting this? The likely culprit is her media diet, where violence can crop up in unexpected ways; research from Penn State College of Medicine found that "good guy" superheroes are often more violent than the bad guys they defeat. Studies show that watching violent entertainment can lead to increased aggression levels, though the effect appears to be mild. "On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is peaceful and 10 is homicidal, a child who sees lots of violence may go from a 2 to a 3," explains Dr. Levin.

More worrisome, though, is the way children can fixate on particular images. Even not-so-graphic screen violence can be alarming for little ones because they may not be able to distinguish between what's real and what's fake. Katch advises minimizing violent content on screens before age 8 and being judicious even with older children.

Parents of sons, in particular, should be mindful of how our culture tells boys that "violence is for them," as Dr. Levin says: "Many toys, shows, and video games convey the idea that violence is a de facto part of masculinity." This can make it harder for boys to opt out when a game goes beyond their comfort zone, or to explore play about themes that feel "girly." Dr. Levin suggests offering plenty of alternatives rather than banning violent content. In preschool, let boys play with dolls and dress-up clothes; later, offer books, games, and movies with nonviolent themes alongside whatever their friends are watching.

You can't keep your kid in a bubble, and while we'd all prefer that our children never know about things like terrorism or school shootings, the talks these events inspire can be opportunities to do some of our best parenting.

I didn't save the villagers from my daughter's playdate massacre, but I've started asking more questions about the stories she's exploring in her play. "Kids are going to be exposed to this stuff, so we need to be connected with them around it," says Dr. Levin. "Otherwise, they'll think they can't talk to us about these things." And that's the real danger.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2020 issue as "Why Good Kids Like 'Bad Guys'"

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