By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I’m a passionate advocate against violence in all forms, I am also a mom who regularly hears exchanges like the following one in my own home:
But still, I struggle as a parent in thinking about how my children view violence and fighting as entertainment. And, to them, it is truly so fun! These play fights are times when they seem to laugh the hardest. They often seem like they could play like this for hours without getting bored. It seems to be one of the greatest ways they bond, too.
One thing I find fascinating is that they seem to have a highly developed set of rules of fair play when it comes to their fighting. For example, they may thrust their swords toward each other, but they rarely actually hit each other, and when they do, the one who was hit usually yells, “No hitting!”
And yet, I cringe every time I hear and see my boys play like this, and in truth this issue is one that I struggle with a lot as a parent. I want my children to grow up to be loving, peaceful, nonviolent individuals. I want them to be free from perpetrating or experiencing violence in any form--physical, emotional, and sexual. I want them to become advocates against violence and abuse, in whatever big or small forms that may take.
Could I stop this? I don’t know! When I was watching my one son practice his ninja moves, I asked him how he learned those moves. He told me he practices them when he’s alone in his room. I can’t conceivably watch every move my kids make every moment of every day, can I?
Believe me, I have tried so hard to not allow violent play to enter their lives. One time, when my older son was in preschool, he and his buddies became fascinated with guns. At that time, I hadn’t allowed any toy guns into my home, and still today that is a type of toy I do my best to avoid. However, he and his friends became highly creative and skilled at making their own “guns” with other objects, and when all else failed, with their fingers. I would say, “We don’t play with guns in our family.” And what I’d always hear back was, “But it’s not a gun.” I heard lots of creative stories about what the not-a-guns really were, the best being a “jelly shooter.” I realized through all of this that I am somewhat limited in what I can do to stop my kids from taking part in play that has violent undertones.
I’ll only touch on my thoughts about how gender factors into all of this here. I don’t buy into the notion that “Boys will be boys” and so somehow they are entitled to violent play. I do think that somehow the fact that they are boys plays into this, but from a parenting perspective, I have no female children of my own to compare them to. One observation I’ve had is that they seem in tune with gender rules around aggression and roughhousing. For example, they typically ask adult males to wrestle and roughhouse, but not females. As their parent, regardless of the fact that they are boys, I want them to be peaceful and learn nonviolent ways of resolving conflict and being entertained.
What can I do? I’m still figuring out the best ways to handle this. I am guessing some people will read this and think I’m overreacting to so-called “normal” boy behavior, or at least perhaps I’m over-thinking it. But, I want to be intentional about helping my boys grow into nonviolent adults, so here are a few of the ways I try to address their violent play.
First, to some extent, I let them learn the natural consequences of fighting and violence. This one still hasn’t quite sunk in for them, but when one of them gets hurt as a result of fighting, I talk with them about how that is what happens when people are rough with each other. I want them to learn that violent behaviors have consequences, whether these consequences are physical, emotional, or damaging to their relationships.
Second, I use their play fights as learning opportunities for all of us. I ask them a lot of questions to try to understand more about why they think this is fun, how they know not to hurt each other, and what it’s like for them when they’re play fighting. We’ve had some great conversations about all of these topics, and it’s helped me to understand why they enjoy this type of play so much.
Third, I try to keep an ongoing conversation with them (at an age-appropriate level, of course) about violent and unhealthy versus safe and healthy relationships in all areas of their lives. This includes the media they watch and use, as well as their experiences with their peers. Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about bullying at school, including various options for responding if bullying occurs.
And finally, I keep a close watch on their behaviors so that I can be certain that their play doesn’t cross over the fine line between play fighting and sibling abuse. I make sure the laughter far, far outweighs the tears. I watch and listen to make sure I don’t see any signs that would alert me that the line has been crossed, such as if one child was pummeling the other all the time, if one child was consistently using more force than the other, and if I noticed any changes in either child’s behavior or mood.
Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had. There are few things I want more for my boys than peaceful, loving, safe, and happy relationships throughout their lives. Every day, I can do my best to model that for them and to help them learn how to build that kind of relationship with the important people in their lives.