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involving other children in your child's imaginary play

Everett is a media-saturated kid, despite all my good intentions during pregnancy. We love Dora, Backyardigans, and movies that may or may not be kid-friendly but Everett loves: Chronicles of Narnia, Princess Bride, and naturally the entire Disney/Pixar oeuvre. He's at the age where imaginative play is not just developing, more like seeping into every nook and cranny of his world. He sees bad guys and princesses (in need of rescue) and superheroes everywhere.

Everett_arthop Lately, he's been involving other kids (largely girls, age 4 or 5) in his play. He'll draft them as superhero helpers to save the princess and beat the bad guys (even if they, themselves, are princesses -- that doesn't seem to slow him down any). The girls will call him "my superhero" and will assist him in gigantic karate kicks and sword play and the occasional shooting (from any weapon, he's using his stethiscope from his doctor kit as a laser-type "shooting thing") to beat the bad guys and rescue the many princesses waiting in the trees, under the bench, on the roof, in the closet.

Yesterday, both Everett and his princess/superhero friend got in trouble for finding huge sticks to use for swords. Everett couldn't stop talking about his friend (her daddy calls her his princess!) and wishing to play with her more. But as they both got in trouble, she left the park hurriedly and Jonathan never had a chance to exchange phone numbers with her daddy.

Sometimes I worry that Everett's rather good-vs-evil, violent play will keep other parents from wanting their kids to play with him -- and wondered if that hadn't been the reason the princess friend had gone home so quickly. But it's just the way he takes dominion over his world and I don't want to quash it. In fact, I've been encouraging it, playing along with him when I have time and engaging in his stories. We're even planning to throw a save-the-princess birthday party (princesses can save other princesses, naturally! we're all feminists here :).

Do you let your kids engage in the imaginations of other children? And how much latitude do you give them with the beating of badguys and the swordplay (assuming safety of all involved, naturally)? I've noticed that parents of kids over 4, or so, throw up their hands and accept that "killing" bad things is just a rite of passage, and have stopped disciplining their kids for saying the "d" word. As have I. What's your policy with imaginary death and killing? Am I being too permissive?

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We don't have a tv, and my oldest son was unaware of any of the "good guy/bad guy" stuff until he went to preschool, at which point he quickly learned about superheros, blasters, guns, "I shot you, you're dead" and all the rest of it. It was inevitable, but I wasn't thrilled.

Still, there does seem to be a deep need in kids (boys, especially) to act out this stuff. My son is now 6, and has offered the apple of violent, imaginative play to his little brother (3), who eagerly took a bite.

As it stands now, I let them know very clearly why I don't like them pretending to kill each other. But I also allow them to do it. I don't let them pretend to shoot me, though. That's where my line is drawn. "Play that with each other, I don't play about killing," is my mantra.

At the same time, while their shooting scenarios bug me at home, but I go with the flow, I really try to nip them in the bud if we're out and about, especially if there are younger kids around.

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My 2.5-year-old has been drawn into some of the "get the bad guys" and sword play business by cousins. This does seem to reflect some deeply rooted boy-stuff, and I think it is necessary preparation for moral and other challenges to come. So I'm learning to go with it. However, I intend to draw the line where my parents did: No pretending to shoot other people, ever, and no pointing a toy or imaginary gun at other people, ever. (Possible exception for brightly colored water pistols.)

P.S. Everett sounds entirely charming! I wouldn't worry any bit more than you already have.

Did you ever see that PBS documentary Raising Cain (there is a book by the same name, too)? It talks a lot about violent play, and how it's actually necessary for healthy emotional development (especially for boys). You should definitely check it out.

I have a problem with little girls being introduced to the idea that they are princesses that need to be saved.
Even at such a young age, I feel this is a dangerous message. I know, it seems like I should lighten up, but children are forming basic ideas about relationships and their roles very early on. I would never want my daughter to think that a boy (in play), then a man (in life) would need to save her. Hopefully, she will lean on her relationships with male and female family, partners and friends to save herself.
Again, I know, it's like they are just little kids playing games, but I just really feel that it's a strong message to send at a really impressionable time in their lives.

Okay, to clarify, by "violent play", I mean imaginary good-vs-evil, shoot the bad guys type play that doesn't cross the line to deliberately hurting other children. After re-reading my previous post, I realize that "violent play" sounds pretty harsh when it's not put in the proper context!

Monica, I agree with your points. I tend to think raising children involves both accepting their nature and endeavoring to nurture, and part of the nurturing could include trying to break free of the gender stereotyping of yesteryear.

Boyhood and girlhood offer so many options, including plenty of roughhousing and conflicts. Part of that could, perhaps, include our endeavoring to model alternative ways to problem-solve, even in fantasy play.

My near 5-year-old definitely wants to play shooting games, but I have so far been able to explain that it's too painful for me to see him pretending to kill others because there is so much death and violence in the world.

It's the same line I give my elementary students and they still manage to have vivid, creative, demonstrative fantasy play, sans shooting.

As an Early Childhood Educator (not to mention a mother of a 7 year old boy) this is my bag...

In the primary years, it is completely typical for boys to play weapons, good vs. evil, save the damsel, etc. As a society we try to suppress this type of play thinking we are raising little Kip Kinkels or serial killers. What takes it to the next level is promoting "violent" play i.e. let's kill him, kill the bad guy, etc.

I am a non-violent parent, as I am sure most of you are. I never bought my child play weapons, or allowed family to buy him pretend guns, swords, etc. I didn't make a big deal about it when he was exposed to some weapon play through cousins, Preschool, etc. Around 5 years of age, he started showing a true interest in guns, even going so far as to check out a book on WW2 weapons from his school's library. I had ongoing conversations with him about weapons..what are they used for...hurting/killing animals and people...why would you want to play with something that hurt animals/people..."I dunno" was the response, until he got it! We also rented the movie "The Iron Giant" which has a nice mellow message about weapons.

Like most things, it naturally made its way through him, without becoming an issue. I have never encouraged him to "kill" anything through pretend play. I just don't feel it is necessary.

Curiosity with weapons, good vs. evil, superhero play is a completely normal part of their development. Taking it to the next level and allowing/promoting/participating in pretend "killing/hurting" is a different story in my book. I realize it has been done for generations, and my son is definitely boy’s boy.

In this day, the response he received at the park is probably a typical one for most parents (including myself). We are trying to raise a generation of boys who are not desensitized to violence because it is so real. The previous poster was right, there is already so much violence in the world...why propagate it??


This is a glimpse into my future -- my boy is 10 months old and from what I've read, the imaginary violence comes with the territory. Reading these commends did cause me to reflect -- my older brother and I used to pretend killing "bad guys" or chase and "shoot" each other (maybe he was trying to turn me into the little brother he'd wished for). At some point, my dad bought him a BB rifle for shooting at paper targets (not hurting birds or anything like that). Being the typical little sister who wanted everything my brother had, I begged for a BB rifle, and was given one a year later. Some of our best childhood memories are of summer nights spent lighting candles and shooting the wicks off. We've both turned out fine, we haven't murdered or maimed anyone though I admit to wanting a paintball gun to shoot at everyone who blows past the stop sign on our corner where kids play.

My parents had a very Asian, Buddhist, gentle philosophy and didn't solve problems with arguments or violence and it never occurred to us that we would ever do so. My point is, there's always the bigger picture of how we consistently parent and communicate in other ways that helps put this imaginary play into perspective.

My son goes to a preschool where the basis of the program is neohumanist principles and the handbook clearly states to leave the superheroes at home.

When I picked him up from school one evening, I observed a couple of the older boys playing with shovels in the sandbox. One child stuck a stick through an opening on the top of the shovel and pretended to shoot the other child. Even in a setting where there are no toys that would promote "violent play", the kids still opted to play such games.

Despite not being too thrilled about my son getting his first toy gun, admittedly I have played laser tag and paint ball, and enjoyed it. So perhaps the key is to help children to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and making sure that imaginary play involving guns and weapons don't bleed into reality.

I finally surrendered to the fact that I have a boy and that he probably should be wearing a permanent cape with a capital T on it (super Testosterone activate)..Anyway, I'm really glad to read the write ups on this issue because it seems my little 3 and a 1/2 year old lovey (who also smells flowers, picks out colors for painting his new play kitchen, and has a Dora doll) is also way into being a super hero (with continual sound effects), playing lightsabers and re-enacting death scenarios with his miniature 'guys' til no end, and telling random people ever so sweetly that he likes to shoot monsters in the eyes.
At first I was shocked at this behavior, and a bit worried I had over exposed him to the media too early. I have come to realize that there there is an inner warrior in each of us that needs to be attended to at some point. The nature of light and dark in this universe is unavoidable and with that comes educating. The fact that most boys go through this process sooner or later makes me feel more at ease.
Hey, the world is a kinda weird place at times, especially when you see death for the first time (such as a first pet, or even an insect). This seemed to spark the everlasting 'D' word in our household for months. These are concepts that are hard for them to understand and yes, they will explore them in their own unique way.
As long as you as a loving, concerned parent are aware and there holding their hand, instilling the values that children need to learn, I believe there should be no worry. Also exposure to these ideas need to be balanced and can be used in play and then guided to something empowering and creative. I find if he gets overinvolved in the 'death' thing I'll change the 'role play' into a more creative scenario like making his teddy bears do a song or dance, or fly all over the house..for example...their are endless possiblities. Also I find nothing wrong with the 'help me' super hero scenarios. I think we need all the angels in training we can get.
A seriously great book that illustrates a boys innate and 'tribal' needs is called 'The Wonder of Boys'. Highly recommended for moms with boys and with husbands,

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