My son is upstairs killing zombies. And I’m OK with that. But many Moms wouldn’t be.
I remember an incident back when my son was about eight. He was part of a group of boys playing a shoot ’em up game among the trees near the playground. I watched as another mother pulled her boy out of the group.
“I have to take that gun away from you,” she said with determined calm. “Our agreement is you can only play with toy weapons if you don’t point them at other people.” She raised her gaze for a moment and happened to meet my eyes. Her glance scanned automatically from me towards my son, who was pointing his broken plastic semi-automatic directly at other kids while making impressively realistic machine-gun sounds, while I sat in the sun, unperturbed.
Awkward. Very awkward.
This column is a belated explanation to that Mom – and more: it’s a plea to reconsider her, um, “agreement.” In fact, it’s a plea not just to her but to all parents, educators, and policy-makers: Let our boys be boys.
We are all, first and foremost, individuals, and thankfully, there are many different ways of being a boy or a girl. But generally speaking, boys love to play rough games. They love to wrestle, chase each other, smash things, talk about smashing things, watch things being smashed, make smashing sounds and, whether by bludgeoning a stuffy, or machine-gunning enemy forces with the wiggle of a thumb, pretend to kill living beings.
This kind of play is increasingly forbidden, even labelled pathological. Kindergartens ban not just toy guns but also plastic swords, axes and knives. Schools forbid picking up sticks, friendly wrestling at recess, or writing stories about cool explosions, epic battles, or scary monsters who destroy the world. The media consistently tell us that electronic gaming is going to turn our boys into desensitized, violent, obese failures.
With no outlets for their energy and imagination, boys are suffering. Educator Ali Carr-Chellman (Check her out HERE), a recent speaker in the cutting-edge TED series, points out some sobering statistics:
- For every 100 girls suspended from school, 250 boys are suspended
- For every 100 girls in special education, there are 217 boys
- For every 100 girls expelled, 335 boys are expelled
- For every 100 girls diagnosed with a learning disability, there 276 boys
- For every 100 girls diagnosed with an emotional disturbance disorder, there are 324 boys
Are boys just naturally messed up? Not at all, says Chellman. They’re just stuck in social structures, especially schools, that do not reflect their culture. She says we have to meet boys where they are, and suggests getting the geniuses who work for the gaming companies to design educational electronic games that can be used in schools to re-engage boys. She also calls for more male teachers in Elementary schools, re-examining “zero-tolerance” policies, and offering boys more physical activity in schools.
I know that the vast majority of violence in the world is perpetrated by males. In particular, male violence against women is a horrible scourge in our society, a sometimes-deadly enforcer of the patriarchy. But expecting little boys to play and learn like little girls is not the way to address this. Instead, as suggested by Chellman’s statistics, it seems to be setting them up for frustration, low-self-esteem, social exclusion, and academic failure – none of which positively correlate to non-violence.
Taking toy guns away doesn’t work. I’ve watched a boy pick up a Barbie doll, point her at his friend, and let loose with a barrage of shooting sounds. I’ve heard of a girl who dressed up her brother’s plastic guns in doll clothes and served them tea (saying, “This is the Mommy gun, this is the Daddy gun and these are the baby guns,” according to the guns’ size). Primal forces will out, no matter how hard we try to suppress them.
And that is what we are dealing with here – primal forces.
For many thousands of years, men have tended to be warriors, hunters and protectors. Their survival, the survival of their family and tribe, and the perpetuation of their genes, depended on their ability to fight and kill. It is only relatively recently in the history of humans that most men no longer live with this imperative.
But evolution doesn’t move as fast as social change, so men are still born with the instincts, interests and drives of the warrior and hunter. Boys with their toys are literally acting out these masculine archetypes through their play.
The operative word here is “play.” Well-adjusted children recognize the difference between their fantasy worlds and real life. They have no desire to shoot their friends or blow up their own homes, but they sure enjoy pretending to. Wisely, they want their fantasy worlds to be rich and wild, places where they can explore concepts of danger, adventure and aggression that (rightly) have no place in their everyday lives.
Children’s play is primal, but balancing the primal, we have civilization. Although children don’t always leave childhood behind without a pang, boys do generally mature, pack away their plastic Viking spears and Darth Vader costumes, and channel their warrior/hunter energies into sports, work, community activism, dedication to their families, and other adult pursuits. If they end up violent, it is due not to their childhood games but to a complex interplay of personal dysfunction, genetics, and social forces, much of which we can, and should be, addressing.
If we try to suppress boys’ play, their expression of primal energies and ancient archetypes, we only hinder their development. Let’s stop demonizing boy energy.
After all, who else will keep the zombies away?
Category: Your Healthy Nature