Why This Pacifist Supports Her Daughter’s Violent Play

lydia's drawing edited“This is a bad girl, and this fairy is killing her with a sword,” my daughter explains about the picture she has drawn.

“Oh,” I remark. “That’s interesting.”

“I’m going to pick up a stick and stab the monster in the head and the tummy,” she confides in me as we walk through the scary trees.

“Wow, you’re brave,” I tell her. “Show me how you’re going to do it.”

When I started retelling her the story of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the part of the story that most intrigued her was the part where Eric drives a ship into Ursula’s gigantic belly. I didn’t hold back on any of the details. She was fascinated.

As a princess-obsessed four-year-old who spends her days drawing and dressing up, I’m surprised how often my daughter speaks of “killing.”

And as a pacifist, I’m sometimes surprised how okay I am with it all.

I’m A Pacifist, But . . .

I don’t believe in hitting children in any manner or under any circumstances. (In fact, I don’t even believe in punishing them at all.) I don’t believe in carrying a weapon for self-defense. I come from a long line of pacifists (Mennonites) who have risked their lives to avoid participating in war. I don’t believe there is such a thing as redemptive violence. Ever.

I’ve always been the person to outlaw violent video games in our home because they “encourage violent behaviour and a glorification of guns.” I would recoil in horror if I heard children talk of stabbing or chopping up enemies. I nodded with understanding when studies reported that watching violent media leads to increased aggression. Of course it does!, I thought. I assumed we would have a no-toy-guns policy when our kids got older.

I’m still committed to radical non-violence. But my relationship to violent play changed last year — before my daughter had any vocabulary or visibly inclination for violence — when I read the book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones.

To my complete surprise, Jones managed to overturn many of my beliefs about fantasy violence.

Now that my daughter is older, she’s starting to think about, imagine, and play out violent behaviour, mostly towards imaginary creatures. And instead of trying to talk her out of it, suppress it, or lecture her about it, I support it.

Here’s why.

1. Kids need a safe way to express their fears and aggression.

The world is a scary place, and children feel very small and powerless in it. “Of all the challenges children face, one of the biggest is their own powerlessness,” Jones writes (p. 65). Children are constantly and painfully aware that they are extremely vulnerable. Their bodies are small and weak in a world ruled by grown-ups, and they have very little control over their lives. Thus “one of our most profound yearnings as we grow up,” Jones argues, “is simply to feel powerful” (p. 66). Play violence helps a child experience that feeling. After all, one of the greatest powers a human can wield is the power to kill a foe. Some might do it with a magic wand; others with an imaginary dagger.

Play — especially aggressive play — allows children to release those powerful emotions and experience some of those feelings of strength and mastery. “Aggression is an expression of the need to feel strong,” Jones argues. “Children will face it, and feel it, and have to do something with it. Playing with it makes it feel less scary, [and] puts them in charge” (p. 68).

I like how Jones summarizes some of the essential functions of play:

It ‘explodes’ tension through emotional arousal and make-believe aggression. It provides correctives, happy endings, that help children to believe that what frightens them can be overcome. It helps them navigate their concerns through structures and rules that they can learn and predict and so feel they’ve mastered. It allows them to manipulate troubling ideas until those ideas become familiar and lose their power. (p. 101)

Lydia grieving over my remains. A monster shot me with swords and now I have turned into dirt.

Lydia grieving over my remains. A monster shot me with swords and now I have turned into dirt. Of course she is dressed as Elsa.

2.Violent play doesn’t cause real violence.

I don’t have the space or desire to explore this extensively — you’ll have to read Jones’ book yourself if you want to learn more. But he argues very persuasively that make-believe violence doesn’t necessarily cause or turn into real violence.

Yes, kids can get hurt when they wrestle or swordplay with sticks. And yes, boisterous play can get out of hand and require occasional adult intervention to keep them from destroying the living room.

However, “the benefits of rough-and-tumble play are well documented,” Jones points out. “It can be annoying for parents, it can get out of hand and lead to head bumps, but most authorities agree that it’s normal, healthy, and generally conducive to more confidence kids” (p. 37).

And yes, there are kids who are genuinely violent. But their violence stems from other problems in their lives, not from violent play.

He explains: “Profiles of violent adolescents don’t generally show any exorbitant amount of aggressive play early in life, and, in fact, often show the opposite: violent teenagers often had trouble bonding with peers in normal childhood play” (37).

Kids know the difference between fantasy and real violence.

We adults feel anxious when our kids talk about killing and shooting and stabbing, for fear that they will want to act out these things in real life.

But kids know that their bloody fantasies are separate from reality. They don’t actually want to plunge blades into actual bodies. My little girl can talk about stabbing monsters all day, but I know that if I gave her a real dagger there would be a 0% chance she would actually stab somebody with it.

But sometimes we act like we genuinely fear that our children will try to kill each other when we see or hear them play-fighting, and that sends confusing messages.

In fact, when we get worked up about their make-believe violence, we send the troubling message that their fantasies are dangerous.

“We don’t help children learn the difference between fantasy and reality when we allow their fantasies to provoke reactions from us that are more appropriate to reality,” Jones argues. (56)

When we freak out and start shouting, “We don’t shoot people!”

we blur the very boundaries that [children are] trying to establish. We teach them that pretend shooting makes adults feel threatened in reality, and therefore their own fantasies must be more powerful and more dangerous than they thought. The results for the child is more anxiety and self-doubt, more concern over the power of violent thoughts, less sense of power over their own feelings, and less practice expressing their fantasies — a combination far more likely to lead either to behavioral problems or excessive timidity than safe self-enjoyment would be. (56)

(Side note: a popular Mennonite old-wives tale tells of a child who pretended to shoot another child with a stick, and then real bullets came out and shot the other child. This is a perfect example of what Jones is talking about. The story meant to deter children from play-shooting, but what I think it really does is tell children that imagination can be dangerous.)

So when Lydia tells me she was trying to “kill” her cousin, I don’t have to worry that she harbours any real desire to murder her little friend. We do need to have a conversation about respecting her cousin’s desire not to be whacked on the head, but I don’t need to be alarmed by her violent language. I don’t need to tell her “We don’t kill people!” because she already knows.

So I’m not going to worry about all of her violent language and play. I’m confident that I’m still raising a little pacifist who will someday use her self-confidence and imagination to make the world a gentler, more loving place.

(Check out Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones if you want to learn more. It’ a great read!)

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  1. Thanks for this! I have felt so bad lately about my 4 year old boy’s constant imaginary battles and interest in all manner of swords, now and arrows, and guns. So reassuring to know that other kids play the same way. I’ll have to check out the book.

  2. A lot of Henry’s play right now is fighting and battles. It actually gives a way to talk about a wider variety of circumstances snd where boundaries are in real snd imaginative play. Allowing it also allows us to see what he needs from us to experience his world. He’s already shown us his interest in fighting, etc. So in the next year or so he’ll most likely be finding himself in martial arts lessons in a trusted dojo so that he can have an outlet for the energy and imagination while also learning self control and morality behind his physical abilities.

  3. I learned so much here! Thanks for writing this. I’ve been wondering where sam has gotten all these ideas. The power disparity makes so much sense. He’s also always making everyone go to “jail” and seems to have a big focus on “justice”…or whatever that looks like for a 3 year old. Did it mention at what age this paradigm changes?
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  4. I appreciate your insights and honesty. I babysat for a family that I truly respected in Maryland for a couple of years after we were first married. I was pregnant with our first child. When inquiring about their disciplinary strategies, they told me that they liked Shepherding a Child’s Heart book, and if their children tried to jump in the street, or did anything scary, that was truly endangering their lives, that would necessitate a spanking. Anything else, they felt, it was unnecessary and could be considered “violent.” Depends on what you consider “violent.” I think a spanking can accomplish a whole lot more than pacifism on certain occasions (and I do think violence has had a place- a very basic illustration is that at least the U.S. is willing to do something and step in on the occasion of things like the Holocaust!!!!) I have noticed with my kids that if they do something truly terrible … say, spilling an entire large bottle of baby powder on the floor of the living room… not that that has ever happened HERE;), they get on a “high” and need something more severe to be brought down to good behavior. That is why we spank… very occasionally.

  5. GROWL! I had a big long comment and hit the wrong button.

    This is pretty darn fascinating! It helps me be more ok with G talking about “punching in the face,”of which I have no clue where it originated. I want to support imagination and creative play, but have found myself saying, “no kiddo, we don’t shoot people.”

    I never wanted to be a spanker. There are far more effective measures to take, and I’m with you on the discipline bit. Cliched, but I was spanked when I was little. I believe the emotional abuse was far more traumatic and damaging to my development; regardless, we don’t spank in our house.

    Except for this one time. I struggled with keeping G from being to rough around E when he was a little baby. She was easily excited and just loved her brother, but didn’t know her own physical strength at times. One time after a particularly stressful trip to the grocery store, she was lying over him in the living room and he started screaming. I lost control and spanked her butt hard with my hand. That moment is forever burned into my brain. The flash of fear and disappointment in her eyes. Gut-wrenching disappointment. I immediately apologized and we hugged and cried. She was over it within minutes. I cried for 2 weeks. About my loss of control and her loss of trust, however brief.

    Never do I want to return to that awful emotional place. One spank is all it took to strongly reaffirm my anti-spanking convictions.

    (Sorry, that was a bit off track and dramatic. But it feels good to share it.)

  6. I’m a fighter from a line of fighters who has turned pacifist (at least in philosphy) as an adult. I strongly believe in radical non-violence and as some one who loved playing fighting games as a kid, I wasn’t sure how all that fit together once we started having children. And sure enough, I inwardly recoiled the first time my sweet three year old told a fairy tale where the princess was cutting off heads. I struggle with wrestling and play fighting mostly because the noise irritates my nerves but I always feel like they need that freedom. So I try to give that space in play and imagination even if I’m cringing inwardly.
    On a slightly different note, I haven’t read his entire book, just articles but I do take his advocacy of violent and sexual fantasy being important for child development with a heavy dose of salt given that Gerard Jones made his living from just that genre (not all his work but lots). I’m not convinced that there is always that separation of real and fantasy. It was the sharing of violent, graphic, and sexual explicit/exploitive videos that I saw among teenagers several years ago that really got me questioning that. “Good” kids posting, sharing, and liking videos with thousands and thousands of views that were horrific in nature. When questioned, they honestly didn’t seem to make the connection that these were real events, real people, real time; it was devastating to see the disconnect. Not to say that it was their media and video games that were the whole of the issue but it was really sad to see real life stuff being view with the same casual attitude as a video game.
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  7. I think as Christian parents the ultimate deciding factor in what we allow or encourage our children to do ought to be, “does it glorify God?”. A book on parenting suddenly becomes woefully irrelevent if it doesn’t line up with with God’s word. If you don’t believe a way of playing gloifies God…as determined through studying His character…you should follow that conviction rather than defer to a book that tells you such and such is supposedly healthy and/or needed for children, simply because your kid likes to play that way. I am not a pacifist, but it seems really odd to allow and encourage a type of play you would loathe for your kid to do in reality. That’s just my opinion, though. In my own home, things we view as sin…through our Bible readings…don’t get used as entertainment or play. It has been really helpful, even for us grown ups, to become spiritually sensitive.

    Anyway, you’re the parent, it’s your choice! I just wanted to encourage you to put your religious convictions before parenting pyschobabble. I know parenting is hard and scary at times and i am often feeling pulled this way and that with all the opinions out there. May God bless your family :-)

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