by Laurie Prusso, M.Ed
This letter was written in response to a teacher of young children who was concerned and a little upset about little boys coming to preschool and playing Power Rangers and other kinds of "aggressive" games.
My personal belief relative to the findings that children are more aggressive now is that it has more to do with a lack of positive relationships with and an increase in punitive reactions by adults, and too much time too early in group care--kids are having to "fight" for their rights and haven't learned respectful ways to do it. TV and the media only exacerbate those things that are lacking in their lives and reinforce relationships that support disrespect.
But when children demonstrating typical behavior (like Power Rangers, Spiderman, Indiana Jones, etc.) are prohibited from this type of play, and when we call it "violent" when little boys pick up a fallen twig from a tree and say "On Guard", something has gone wrong! When I was a child all of the boys played the very politically incorrect Cowboys and Indians! No one called it "Aggressive" or "Violent" and these boys did not become aggressive or violent.
I'm doing some research this summer on "rough and tumble play", which is often mistakenly (because of our current beliefs and societal trends) referred to as "aggressive" play. There is a trend in all educational institutions to label any kind of pretend play that includes pretend fighting, good and bad guys, weapons, or super heroes, as "aggressive" and to prohibit it with a zero tolerance response. We have to be careful because the words we choose to describe something applies our values and belief system to it. Yesterday, a three-year-old in a local early childhood program was expelled because he said, "I'm gonna get a bomb and kill you," to the teacher when he was mad at her. She considered it a terrorist act and expelled him on the spot! We are missing the big picture and over-reacting to a violent world and applying adult thinking abilities to very young children. If I were the teacher, I would wonder if this child is being hurt. I would wonder if it was just something he heard someone else say and he was trying it out on me. I wonder if he was reacting to her meanness (which was also reported to me)? I wonder if he feels powerless in her classroom because she rejects children, discourages them, and is harsh. We will not know, because he was simply dismissed for his "violent outburst". No one sought to learn what he needed.
Power play, and rough and tumble play is often related to things children have seen on television or in the movies, however, the value of this kind of play is well documented and is universal. Adults today are often uncomfortable with the themes (weapons, violence etc.) children seem to gravitate to, but we need to look under the "media context" and see what the children are really saying and doing. You may recall your young friends playing Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles. These kids have graduated from college and are raising their families now--they are not in jail and they are not violent. My kids even turned their pretzels into guns and then pointed them at each other at the lunch table. They made Chinese stars out of my aluminum foil!
In my early research, one of the very interesting things I found is the value of power play and rough and tumble play in helping children develop an internalized sense of self-discipline and self-control. Of course, with three-year-olds, it has not clicked YET, and they often flail themselves around and bump into others with their Karate chops and so forth. What they learn from these powerful movements and from these accidents is how to be careful and throw your punches without really touching anyone.
We can gently guide children to appropriate spaces where there is enough room for them to move about safely, or invite them to do a demonstration while other children watch. Another surprise from the research, and something I had not thought of at all, is that boys develop empathy and concern when they are permitted to play in these powerful ways. You can observe this easily by watching any group of boys playing on their own. When they find themselves getting too rough, or when someone gets hurt, they talk about being more careful and they comfort the injured child or go and get an ice pack on their own, without adult direction.
The research has demonstrated that when this kind of play is prohibited boys are not developing these very important self-regulating behaviors and demonstrate less empathy than boys who have played exuberantly and powerfully. Vygotsky called it "acting a head taller" in play. They demonstrate higher level learning than they can when we ask to perform for us--like stand still in line!
There is a difference between aggression or aggressive play and rough and tumble and power play. The difference can be noted by the expressions on the children's faces. If they are happy, smiling, and seeking each other out, then you can relax--even if they are "running away from" each other, if it is happy running and silly shrieking, then the play is appropriate and children are choosing to participate. If, on the other hand, they are scared, look angry, or are acting out in revenge, that is a different thing and, of course, Positive Discipline is the answer.
One of the things that we know about early childhood play is that children initiate and play with the themes and actions that express the context of their lives--we believe that they do what they "need" to do. Sometimes a young child has older siblings who are rough with him, and preschool is a place to practice having some personal power. Sometimes a child is dealing with family transitions and using his whole-body to be expressive and work out strong feelings. Teachers can listen attentively, support, and encourage appropriate powerful play that enhances development. We can also teach all of the children how to navigate--to tell others that "I don't want to play", that they can say "stop" or "I don't like that" and we can teach the "rough" kids to listen and respond appropriately.
Be careful about labeling this as "aggression". Aggressive behavior is very different from powerful or rough and tumble play. Children who demonstrate aggression really need our help and nurturing so that they can express their pent up anger and often, their hurt. They need our support and teaching so that they can learn the skills that they need to be able to make friends and sustain play. They do not need prohibition or sterile environments.
Unfortunately, aggressive children are often treated with aggression. Caregivers punish them, put them on time-out, withhold pleasurable activities from them, and give negative reports to their parents. None of these is helpful to the child. If we want to help children—all children, then we will learn to listen and help the child heal and be able to do better next time.
Our world is not friendly to young boys anymore. We do not let them climb trees or go up the slide. They can't twist in the swings, or swing on their bellies like we did. They can't climb up the slide and slide down the pole like we did because, "That's not what slides are for!" Where will they learn to take risks, to be careful, to be gentle, to demonstrate concern, and to internalize self-control?
One final thought. When we introduce storytelling and good literature in the classroom, and invite a little "theater" at circle times, we see children changing their play themes to reflect the stories we present. Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Three Bears, the Three (is it always three?) Pigs and so forth, allow children to act powerfully in ways that we "prefer". Rainbow Fish is a story that teaches about kindness and generosity. King Bidgood's in the Bathtub is about a nutty king that won't get out of the bath. They love to act these out.
Please do not condemn little boys to a categorization of "aggressive". Whatever the case, children need us to be their allies, their co-learners, and their teachers--in the true sense of the word.
Children who become violent are consistently children who have witnessed violence, been treated violently (physically, psychologically, sexually), and had that violence reinforced by adults who do not understand their behavior as a plea for help! TV and movies only reinforce what these kids LIVE. If we put the blame on TV and not on the absence of caring relationships, we miss the big picture and parents and teachers alike believe that if we can just control television, we will solve all of the problems in the world. Relationships are the solution to the problems.
I am hoping that your little 3-year-old is not a victim of violence, but rather an energetic little preschooler who is simply adopting a theme that is exciting and interesting to him right now. We can help bring about peace in the world when we apply our good adult thinking skills to what we really know about children. When we model kindness, respect and peace to them, and when we teach--really teach them. He will not become violent because he plays power rangers! I promise you that.
My sons don't play Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtles anymore. I think they wish they could. But they still know how to play. Better than that, they know how to be kind and helpful to others, and they learned that from playing.
Good luck to you!
Aggression and TV—or NOT
by Laurie Prusso, M.Ed