Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Boys and The Question of Fighting in Play


"All boy," is how I hear my sons often described.
They wrestle, get really dirty and often run around shouting. They're noisy and rough. They're superheroes one minute, and ninjas the next. They grunt, eat a ton, delight in flatulence... and they're all under 7!

As a woman, I don't understand them most of the time. I have no idea why someone would want to fart in his brother's cereal. I don't understand their fascination with guns, swords, ninjas and ways to fight. I can't fathom their uncanny ability to imitate various motor and gun sounds, or the reasons for over half of the things they need to do. But as I've come to terms with the many sides of my sons, who still cry and snuggle and do really sweet things for their mom, I've noticed a disturbing pattern:

Parents are knocking the fight out of boys.
"Don't fight."
"No wrestling. Someone might get hurt."
"Stop shooting."
"What are you doing? That's not a sword. Stop using that as a sword!"
"It doesn't matter if he took your toy, you don't hurt him."

Sound familiar? I'm fairly certain these or similar words have crossed my lips daily. Things do get a little out of hand. I don't allow my boys to hurt others. However a few experiences have raised red flags for me.

Over a year ago, a mother of three boys got together with me, a mother of four boys, thinking we would enjoy one another's company and that our boys could play. It was a lovely few playdates at various parks, before something changed:
My son picked up a stick and used it as a sword, and her son did the same. This new friend was rather alarmed and went to stop the swordplay. I inventively said that the boys, instead of fighting one another, could make believe a dragon was attacking and fight it with their swords. My friend seemed satisfied, but looked on worriedly, explaining that, "I really don't like violent games. I'm just not up for aggression in my house."
"But, don't a lot of little boys make believe with weapons?" I asked,
"Sure, but a lot of little boys end up aggressive and angry men. I don't want that for my sons. We don't need to express ourselves with violence."
"Well, I get that," I said, "but I don't think all uses of weapons are necessarily violent. What about hunting? Or protecting innocent people, like the police do?"
"Well, that's different. I just think it easier not to go down that road."
She  eventually confiscated the stick her son was now using as a rifle, and told the boys to play something different. I didn't press the issue, but the playdate was our last one. After this occurrence, this lady decided she wouldn't slot us in for playtime anymore, despite my repeated attempts.

One day I was visiting with family members in one of their back yards. A well-meaning mother of one turned around saying, "Whoa. Uh... I don't know if that's okay."
I turned to see my two oldest sons, a tangle of limbs, rolling around on soft grass. Their faces showed concentration and laughter, not anger or malice.
"They're okay," one of my relatives, a brother himself, assured her.

I should have relaxed at that moment. My sons were okay. Both got up eventually, moving on to other things, but the feeling I had at the moment stayed with me. This other mama had no idea what was normal play for my sons. Play for boys often involves fighting and conflict. At least with my sons, their obsession with heroism, valour and protecting the weak is far-reaching. Their physical need for contact and action seems so innate and powerful, that I can't help but think it goes far beyond nurture.

Fighting and conflict are generally labeled as bad. Parents don't want their children to argue with one another, to fight over toys or books or even who gets what spot at the dinner table. It's annoying, time consuming and often, many of us think, utterly pointless. We just want our kids at school and at home to behave nicely and harmoniously with other people, like we must do as adults. Sometimes it doesn't occur to us that it is because we fought with our siblings or other children that we recognize the feelings and reactions we have, and are able to control them as adults. Children learn with a combination of action and guidance. A little bit of listening to trusted mentors, and a lot of trial and error. Fighting, though annoying, can be a healthy part of development.

But play - play is an entirely different thing. Of course I want my sons to be polite. I don't want them to be bullies. I do want to guide their play in such a way that they know their limits, but still enjoy pretending, imagining and emulating the heroes they adore.

"I'm protecting the ship," said my three-year-old when I asked him why he was throwing all of the plush footballs into the yard, "these are cannonballs."

"I'm Luke Skywalker and he's Darth Vader. He's tryin' to kill me, but I'm really strong," said a matter-of-fact six-year-old.

"Don't call me Zachary. Call me Batman! I am fighting bad guys and throwin' batarangs at dem."

"Mom! We built spears with Dad! Now we can be Roman Soldiers!" said an excited five-year-old, carrying his prized new toy.

Around here, often one of these weapons gets confiscated. One simply can't hit a brother or friend out of rage with a plastic light saber and get away with it in our house.  There is much protest, lamenting and gnashing of teeth when this happens, but hurting out of spite or anger is not tolerated by my husband and I. Accidental grazes where both parties are willing to apologize and forgive are treated a little more lightly. Regularly though, our 7- and 5-year-olds accidentally hurt one another and instantly apologize, knowing that their game can continue.

I don't love this part, I'll be honest with you. In the enforcement and direction of weapon-play, sometimes I threaten to confiscate everything and throw it in the garbage. Sometimes my womanly heart is tired of the batarangs and nunchucks and ninja kicks and wrestling and I plead with them, "Can you just play with play-doh or colour? Can you build Lego? How about soccer? Hockey? Play chef and make me a fantastic dinner? (They do these things too, but primarily, their fun is heroes and play-fighting) And it occurs to me that if I just simply banned any sort of weapons or fighting of any kind maybe my life would be more peaceful and a heck of a lot simpler.

I know some mothers and fathers who have done just that, who don't allow fighting or conflict of any time to permeate the walls of their home. The rhetoric here is often that of my friend above, that aggressive behavior is always wrong and leads to unhealthy, angry men. If this is you, we are just not going to agree on this point - that weapons and play fighting, with guidance, can actually help form character. Through play, I've seen my young sons learn lessons about defending the helpless, responsibility, courage, endurance, compassion and even death. Forming early the reasons why one might fight, or why one might use a weapon in a young boy is important and necessary.

What happens when someone who is innocent is being hurt by another person? What happens when a grave injustice is being done and nobody is doing anything about it. This is where we want our children to defend the innocent and stand up for what is right. This is the why. There are real battles being fought by real people, and someday, though some of us hope not, those people might be our sons.

Daily, wars are being fought to protect the innocent. The police cruise our streets waiting for the next call: to a domestic dispute, a robbery, a school shooting - all situations where they may be required to fire their weapon. They are our first line of defense, and we never hesitate to call them heroes.

We want to live in a world where it is not necessary for these men and women to take up arms, but we don't. We simply don't. We live in a world where it has become increasingly necessary for them to do so. So now we are tasked with raising children who will stand up for the innocent, protect the weak and help create peace. We hope they do not need to use weapons to do so. But to teach them that all fighting in any case is wicked, and to teach them that weapons are evil, and to knock the fight out of them - does that rob them, and us, of opportunity not only for boyhood pleasure, but for important lessons? Afterall, is it not the people behind the weapons, and not the weapons themselves that do harm?


  1. A mother of three boys, not the one you exposed in your piece, but also a proposed pacifist perhaps, I too believe that violent play is not the norm for boys, nor need it be. There is much danger in what you propose, and while it may fit for you, it is not developmentally sound or even faith based logic.

    There are many ways children, even boys, can learn the lessons you suspect are being taught in violent play; defending the helpless, responsibility, courage, endurance, compassion and even death. Worrisome is the hidden curriculum of play fighting, that violence can and should be used to solve problems and defend the vulnerable. It's a slippery slope. A high school boy who beats up a verbally abusive peer is not in the right anymore than a pro-life activist who bombs an abortion clinic.

    I feel for the mama who never scheduled another play date with you. My sons have found themselves uncomfortable in the company of rough and combative play. In fact, I have never seen that type of play end well. Isn't there a lesson in that? It always goes too far or someone gets hurt.

    Boys can grow up to be strong men without the level of play-fighting you describe, in fact they may grow up to be stronger men, men who can self-regulate, who need not resort to violence or roughness to self-actualize, who can rise above their primitive tendencies and interact and imagine through cooperation not combat.

    I imagine these words sound strong, but this post is strong, and somehow I feel called to defend the mother you spoke for and of. It seems that may be acceptable in your books, given the value you place on defending the innocent. Either way, suggesting that boys who do not play fight to this degree are missing out is worthy of comment.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm happy to put your mind at ease if at all possible by clearing up a few things.

      In my post, I do make a distinction between real fighting (which we don't allow our children to do) and play fighting:

      "But play - play is an entirely different thing. Of course I want my sons to be polite. I don't want them to be bullies. I do want to guide their play in such a way that they know their limits, but still enjoy pretending, imagining and emulating the heroes they adore."

      Again, I said that we don't allow our kids to hurt other children, merely to play games that involve fighting. If your child were to come to my home and was not comfortable with these types of games, I would of course direct the play to something else.

      My ideas around this are certainly not to foster the attitude that violence is our first response to problems. The teenage boy who beats up someone who calls him names is certainly as wrong as his abuser. We teach this lesson daily around here, and definitely encourage healthy non-violent expression of feelings.

      You say you've never seen this type of play end well, but I have, as in the example of my son's wrestling match in the post, because our children have learned their limits with one another. We (primarily Dad) has often sparred or fenced or duelled with them, showing them that actual pain need not be inflicted.

      We choose to use play-fighting as a teaching tool and for fun, and I believe with proper guidance that it is possible to help our children navigate their way around pretend play and real aggression.

      I'm certainly NOT saying that all parents should be comfortable with my attitude, or that my friend, who I kept anonymous, needs to conform.

      Also, I believe the hidden curriculum of violence to solve problems can be circumvented if separation between real-world problems and emotions can be made clear. My boys know they're playing pretend. They know that real war and real weapons actually maim and kill people. Though they're young, we've talked about this in the context of God's plan for our lives, but the unfortunate abuses of free will. They know the difference between themselves playing pirates or Star Wars and the military actions that kill people daily.

      I hope this helps you understand my post a bit better. Perhaps a rewrite is in order, to clear this up for others?

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. You've given me a lot to think about, and I wish you well as you raise your boys.


Let's talk. I love hearing what others have to say, even if we don't agree. Just be nice. Thanks!