I’ve grown accustomed to the violence.
Many people assume having four brothers prepared me to mother two sons of my own. In some ways, it did. I know another mom who was astounded at the level of physical activity and contact between her boys. I expected constant running, wrestling, and horseplay. Another friend never anticipated she would be the type of mom catching creepy crawlies to study in jars. I understood that any critter coming into our grasp radius would be captured and analyzed. But I was not ready for the hitting, pushing and shouts of “I’m killing you!”
Perhaps it is the fact that I had FOUR brothers. They didn’t need me to play with them. They had each other. Of course, I often tagged along on their adventures, but when their games became too much for me, I simply left and returned to my own room- land of Barbies, kittens, and all things pink.
Right around his fourth birthday, Liam’s fascination with good guys and bad guys flourished. I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of him as he tied on his yellow superhero cape and adorably cried “I’m going to save the day!” I put the camera away when he fashioned his tinker toys into a gun, pointed it at his brother, and proclaimed “I’m killing you!”
Killing you? Huh? Where had this come from? I may enjoy Sons of Anarchy after the tikes are tucked into bed, but while they are awake, it’s G-rated fun. So far as I know, my husband and I model peaceful behavior for our children. We don’t watch violent shows with them. We don’t read violent books. We don’t yell at each other. My style of play includes art projects and imaginative play. My husband is the guy always tickling and throwing them into the air. How did my four year old know to point his homemade pistol and shout “kill?”
Wherever he picked it up, the behavior was there. First I tried the ol’ distract and re-engage technique. “Hey, look at this shiny object over here? It has lights! Want to play with it?” Liam wasn’t a baby anymore. He had figured this trick out long ago. He looked at me almost as if he was thinking “nice try.”
I attempted to explain that to kill something meant it would be gone forever, and he certainly did not want his brother to be gone forever. He replied “I’m just pretending.” Ok, back to the drawing board.
The game began to take on new angles. On a visit to my mom’s house, Liam happened upon my brother’s old stash of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A new obsession was born. Of course, like all action figures with tiny accessories, the weapons belonging to the turtles had been lost almost as soon as the packaging was opened. I figured Liam would simply bash the Turtles together to make them fight, and agreed he could play with them. Wrong again.
Liam began to fashion swords out of sticks, q-tips, other toys- pretty much anything he could get his hands on. He was not content to have the turtles hold a single sword. He loaded each figure up with tens of swords.
Soon the search for swords went beyond Turtles. If we went to the Dollar Store, Liam found the toy swords for costumes and begged me to have one. As we walked to the park, he gathered sticks to fashion into swords. If you ask him what his favorite word is, he will tell you “sword.”
The swords were not the problem. Swords actually facilitated a lot of creative play- pirates, ninjas, superheroes, even chefs. It was the violence that came with the swords- stabbing, punching, kicking, thirst for blood. It is a bit disturbing as a Hippie Mom to see my four year old repeatedly smacking a pillow with his plastic weapon shouting “I’m stabbing him! I’m stabbing him!”
I became even more disturbed as his two year old brother took to giggling hysterically and imitating the behavior. Liam might understand the line between pretend play and reality, but Kellen was still just a baby (no comments about how Kellen is clearly not a baby anymore. He’s MY baby.)
We went to a BBQ with some friends my husband knew from college. One of the women watched Liam and Kellen interacting with her daughter. She remarked “Boys sure play different than girls.”
Her daughter was pretending a ball was an alien villain. Liam was of course stabbing it.
We began a discussion about trying not to parent to gender stereotypes, and how difficult that can be. She mentioned that a friend of hers read a book describing how boys become fascinated with good guys vs. bad guys because it helps them make sense of their own worlds.
The next day I found the book after a few minutes of googling- or at least I found a similar book. It was called Raising a Son: Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man by Don and Jeanne Elium. Parts of the book made a lot of sense to me. It talked about how men are genetically programmed with a need for aggression and dominance. Back in the days of hunters and gatherers, men could fulfill this need by providing food for their families. Now that hunting is no longer necessary, males struggle to find appropriate outlets for this genetic programming.
Little boys play good guys vs. bad guys partially to satisfy this need for aggression and dominance, but they also use it as a way to role play various aspects of what they see in the world around them. Where I see a little boy with blood lust, perhaps the reality is a child figuring out a power struggle.
I spoke with a few of my mom friends with little boys, and they all concurred that their guys demonstrated similar behavior. They advised that I could set limitations to the play that would make me more comfortable, but I mainly, I just had to ride it out.
I took the boys to a play room at the library. Liam and Kellen found a playstructure that had a steering wheel and quickly determined it was a pirate ship. They grabbed their swords and went in search of treasure. I began to observe a trio of girls.
At first, they seemed to be playing in such a civilized manner, and I daydreamed about how easy it would be to mother girls. One girl would walk over to a toy kitchen, pretend to prepare cookies and tea and bring it back for the other girls to eat. She’d then return to the kitchen to wash the dishes.
As soon as the girl turned her back to head for the kitchenette, one of the tea drinkers said to the other “don’t drink it. She put poop and pee in it.”
Both girls set down their cups. The first girl returned from the kitchen with fresh mugs that the girls accepted with gracious smiles. She retreated, and the girls exchanged knowing glances before giggling, sticking out their tongues, and putting down their cups.
Perhaps the good guys vs. bad guys play wasn’t so bad. At least it was out in the open- I knew what I was dealing with. I might have a bad guy on my hands, but maybe that’s easier than a mean girl.