When you pretend to kill someone, please use gentle hands

This morning, Charlie wanted me to tell his friend Matt about our bubble gun. It’s a gun; it blows bubbles.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Charlie had no idea what a gun was, or even how to hold one. Yes, we let him watch TV, but it’s always monitored. There is a specific selection of kids shows on PBS or Nick, Jr. on demand, which means no commercials and no violence. He’s also into old movies and YouTube, but again, monitored.

But this year his school friends are older. They know all about killing and guns and squashing bugs. Charlie has come home slashing a pretend sword and making his sticks cut down dandelions. Lately, when he gets angry he sometimes says he wants to cut my head off. (I swear, he’s well-balanced! I can be aggravating at times.)

I was worried about the aggressive talk until I started doing some reading. If kids can’t hit or kick or throw temper tantrums, they need to channel their aggression somewhere–like into words (I am so angry I feel like cutting your head off…you know, for example) or into game play, such as pretending to cut down dandelions or shoot each other with bubble guns.

So tentatively, and mixed with a lot of outdoor running around, we’ve allowed the violent play–as long as it is not rude or physically hurtful. In other words, you can pretend to kill someone, as long as you use gentle hands.

But today, when I told Matt about the gun, he said, “Oh! We’re not supposed to use that word.”

I thought back over what I’d said, thinking maybe he’d heard “sh*t” when I’d said “shoot.” “What word?” I asked.

“Gun.”

I was dumbfounded. “Gun? Really?”

I called the teacher over. “They can’t say gun?”

And she explained how the kids had been pretending to use guns and saying they were killing each other. The aggressive language and pretend play was disturbing to the adults, so they’d called a teacher meeting and decided the kids couldn’t use the word ‘gun’ in class.

My first thought was that making guns into something secretive and subversive would only increase their appeal.

My second thought was that this was the exact opposite of all that I’d read. Granted, I’m not an expert in childhood development and supposedly these teachers are. But I explained how we handle it at home, and told her about what I’d read. I said that pretend play–as long as no one was actually getting hurt–seemed to be the safest way to act out aggression and figure out problem-solving techniques. She said the teachers just wanted to promote peace in the classroom, which is understandable with 18 kids.

So now I’m not sure what to think. What about cowboys and Indians? What about robots vs. aliens? What about all those other boy games that I don’t know much about? Are all of these verboten?

I’m thinking of going to the head teacher with my printed-out articles and requesting some sort of compromise. Maybe pretending with guns and swords can be okay when they are outside on the playground?

But what if I’m wrong? What if it isn’t okay for kids to pretend to kill each other? What if that does lead to real-life aggression?

Am I blowing this out of proportion? (I do live one neighborhood away from Park Slope, after all.) Is it a case of, if you imagine it, you’ll do it? Or, is pretend play really what I think it is: an essential tool for helping boys–and girls, too–learn to express and work through their aggression without actually hurting anyone?

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10 Responses to “When you pretend to kill someone, please use gentle hands”

  1. Gina Says:

    I am TOTALLY with you on this one. I think the schools have it all wrong. When my twins were in day care, they were not allowed to have “weapons,” even if it was a rolled up piece of paper masquerading as a sword. We told our son, you can’t do that at school, but we don’t agree with that rule and you can do it at home. We have loads of pretend weaponry. I say, “express yourself!”

    Now that they’re in public school, 1st grade, our daughter got sent to the principal for pretending to shoot someone with a crust of a PBJ…I’m not making this up. It’s simply ridiculous. We just keep telling them, “We don’t agree with that rule. You are allowed to pretend. You are not allowed to actually hurt anyone.”

    These are kind, gentle, imaginative kids. I think these school policies are really wrong-headed.

    • Stacy Boyd Says:

      Glad to know I’m not the only one! I love your rule. I’m going to tell Charlie he’s allowed to pretend, but not to actually hurt anyone.

      I’ve told several folks the PBJ story… they all expressed disbelief. It reminds me of that news story where the pre-school boy was sent home for kissing someone.

  2. sofi Says:

    I’m also with you on this. I can’t remember the details, but I remember reading several articles about gun play that pretty much mirror what you’ve outlined (maybe on mothering.com?). I think one of them suggested making a rule about only pretend-killing inanimate objects. So far, we’ve only had minor brushes with weapon-play, so I’m no expert. I’ll have to ask at our preschool and see what their rules are since they’re usually pretty well thought out. And since we live in (and our preschool is in) a neighborhood that does see actual gun violence, it’s something that the parents feel very strongly about.
    Good luck!

    • Stacy Boyd Says:

      I’d be curious to see what your preschool has to say, Sofi. Our neighborhood adults hear about gun violence nearby, but the kids don’t get any exposure to it. I would imagine that to make the subject even more important to deal with.

  3. Dorah Says:

    I have also read a lot about this. There is genetic evidence that boys are more physical than girls–they need to be active. This does not necessarily mean gun-play, but it is generally aggressively oriented (power rangers, Transformers, etc). My son has never seen these shows, but comes home telling me he played them on the playground with the other boys. There is some conjecturing that the rise in ADD/ADHD particularly in boys is a result of societal restrictions of rough-and-tumble active play from a very young age. Now, my son’s school bans the bringing of any actual weapons to school (even plastic guns), which is good practice for public school policies, and redirects the use of makeshift weapons (pencils, sticks, etc) from shooting at each other at school–they tell them that is a play activity for home, but they are at school to work and learn. I believe that playground play allows for some flexibility here. I thought that this was a pretty good balance.

    • Stacy Boyd Says:

      That sounds appropriate for school; the kids are there to learn and the classroom can be dangerous if everyone is running around. But daycare preschool seems iffier. These teachers also need to maintain order, but the kids are not really there to learn in the academic sense. They are there to play, make friends and learn social skills. Active play is part of that. I think I’d be fine with no aggressive play indoors, due to safety, with some allowed outside.

      It’s these kinds of issues that give our generation of parents a bad name. What did previous parents do? I’m sure they didn’t sit around discussing the advantages or disadvantages of aggressive play. Or outlaw boys from roughing it up. *sigh*

  4. Mrs. Jacobson Says:

    Hi, I am an elementary school counselor. I was online researching how to teach kids not to use their hands as weapons per a teacher request, when I came across your comments. Now, I am not sure now how to approach this classroom of second graders on this subject. I believe children must use their immaginations. However, I also believe children should not make another uncomfortable while they play. I can see the point of a teacher wanting to promote peace within the classroom. However, I’m not sure if the same is true for the playground. A child should not be subject to another pretending to shoot them if they are uncomfortable with this. It is obviously not allowed in the classroom at our school. I am pondering how I should approach the subject.
    Any suggestions?

    Mrs. Jacobson

    • Stacy Boyd Says:

      Mrs. Jacobson,
      The incident that inspired this blog post happened in a daycare classroom. While there was instruction going on, most of the day was play-based. However, the “no pretend guns or rough play” rule was enforced both inside and outside. Since last year, Charlie has begun at a new school with a new policy. First, it is a true school, so the classroom is for learning and there is much less physical play inside (though it is a pre-K environment so there is still a lot of different kinds of playing going on). Second, outside at the playground and in the school yard, all games are okay as long as all participants consent and no one is getting hurt. Children who instigate a game of chase, or guns, or crocodiles, etc. are encouraged to gauge the reaction of their classmates. Is anyone crying, hiding, seeking adult assistance? This means they don’t want to play. The instigator should change games or look for someone who does want to play. The focus, in my experience so far, has been on encouraging children to cooperate, communicate and be aware of and respectful of other people’s feelings.

      Good luck on handling the issue in your own school. I’d love to know how it goes.

  5. Gina Says:

    Just my two cents on this. I’m no expert, just a mom. I think that kids should be allowed to pretend they’re holding and shooting guns while they play on the playground/during lunchtime as long as the child(ren) they are playing with do not mind it. I am trying to teach my kids to respect the boundaries of others and part of this is not doing something to someone that they do not want you to do to them. I think it’s totally fine to ban this type of activity in the classroom. That is where learning should take place. So, I don’t think that a kid has to ask first, “Is it OK if I pretend to shoot at you with my finger?” before starting up a game of cops and robbers, however, if the kid they are playing with says, “Don’t shoot me, I don’t like it,” then the shooting has to stop. On the other hand, if the other kid is into it and having a good time, then I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t play that game.

    • Stacy Boyd Says:

      Gina,
      I agree! The “respecting boundaries” approach has worked well at Charlie’s new school, so far. (We just started in September.) The daycare situation was a bit different. The “classroom” had more of a play room feel, and so the issue of it being a place to learn was less pronounced. However, rough physical play in a confined space means kids are more likely to get injured, so I would’ve been fine with relegating rough and pretend gun play to the playground. As far as I know, it was banned all day for the kids in Charlie’s previous class.

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