Monday, March 23, 2009

Notes on children and violence

I am guilty guilty GUILTY of neglecting my blogs, especially Daddy Dialectic. I've had a lot going on with my so-called career. But mainly, I blame Facebook, which has started to suck up a startling amount of online energy.

For years, I've been writing articles and blog entries on the science behind kids and violence, and recently I've felt like all those bits and pieces have started to come together into a coherent narrative. Last week I posted some notes on children and violence to my Facebook page, which drew some interesting comments from friends, including Dawn Friedman, who writes the blog This Woman's Work, and Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters and Men of Tomorrow. I am sharing my notes below along with reader comments--since I haven't asked anyone's permission, including Gerard's, the reader comments are anonymous. I invite your thoughts as well.

Evolutionary and psychological roots of violence:
1. Violent feelings are natural, and have an evolutionary basis

2. Measured in terms of the number of acts, childhood is the most violent period of human life; as they grow humans learn to avoid violence

3. It’s an empirical fact that the vast majority of mature humans avoid real-world violence at all costs

4. A minority of humans do act violently; thus sooner or later, we are all confronted with violence

5. Imaginary violence is not the same thing as real-world violence, but it is a form of preparation for the real thing

Violence in children:

6. All children, boys and girls alike, need physical play

7. For young children, violent play is a form of physical play

8. Violent play exists because it is a way of dramatizing conflict and learning to control violent feelings; this is how we prepare to confront real-world violence

9. Teaching children to repress violent feelings (and violent play) is not the same thing as teaching them to control those feelings

10. Violent and scary play is a way of confronting scary things and learning about conflict in a controlled, fantasy way

11. Adults often seek to repress violent childplay because they cannot control real-life violence; thus, adults teaching children to conceal violent feelings or play is itself a kind of escapist fantasy: If we don't see the expression of violence, we imagine that it does not exist. This is a comfort; it's also delusional.

Ways for adults to foster peacefulness in children:
12. If we behave violently, so will our children; thus we adults should never, ever be violent, except in the most extreme circumstances

13. Imposing rules and limitations on violent play without repressing it helps children learn to control the expression of real-world violence; it also helps demarcate imaginary and real-world violence

14. But the real key to reducing real-world, one-on-one violence is to foster empathy and self-control

15. The best way to foster empathy and self-control is to foster the imagination (i.e., conscience)

16. Fostering imagination allows children and young adults to conceptualize and pursue pathways away from violence

17. This is something they must learn to do on their own; it’s a long-term process accomplished over many years

18. The process consists of questions, conversations, modeling, and also stories…

19. Telling developmentally appropriate stories with violence in them is one way to help this process along. For example, The Iliad is mind numbingly violent and Achilles is the most violent character in The Iliad; and yet when Achilles and Priam weep together, the consequences of violence are revealed to Achilles as well as the reader; Achilles regains his humanity and his sense of restraint. This is what matters in a story with violence in it: it must show the consequences of violence and the humanity of victims.

20. Violent stories without consequences are amoral and help foster real-world violence; this is something we should explicitly explain to children when they are old enough.

21. People need heroism; there are more ways to be heroic than to fight; children, especially boys, also need stories in which heroism is expressed in caring, nonviolent ways

22. Participating in political action (e.g., taking children to anti-war demonstrations) is also a good way to foster nonviolent ethics, by making it public and heroic

Selected, edited reader comments to the original note:

1. Am particularly taken with #19 (hadn't thought of Achilles's "redemption" quite like that), #20 (YESYESYES. If only Hollywood could hear you!) and #21 Can't just say no to a naturally occurring, evolutionarily-based inclination, must alchemize/channel it toward positive release.)

2. This makes me think of Rudolph Steiner's ideas about how imagination is crucial to the development of empathy and how fairytales and myths play into that.

3. I was very influenced by reading Who's Calling the Shots when we were grappling with our then-4-year old's interest in having a toy gun. It allowed me to ease up on trying to control N---'s play while still keeping a discussion open about our values. (As an aside, it's influenced how I'm handling Barbie with my daughter, too.)

I'm conflicted on this. I don't really think violence is "natural" for little kids. I think some kids are more physical than others, that there's a range, but violence as we understand it includes the intention to do harm, knowing the consequences of our physical acts, and i'm not sure little kids have that. That said, i totally agree with your point about empathy, not necessarily because of violence but because empathy is the foundation for social justice.

5. Part of the problem here is that we all use "violence" freely but rarely talk about what we mean by it. By this definition, no, violence isn't natural. But it's become common to refer to kids' make-believe shoot 'em ups and swordfighting as "violent play" and superhero cartoons as "violent entertainment." The "V word" has become a common way to politicize and dominate discussions.

6. Funny you should bring this up; just today I was watching a group of four-year-old boys engage in a series of imaginary superhero playfights that three times out of five turned into real fights, in the sense that excitement escalated and one of them ended up really hitting and one of them got really upset about it. Was it violence? I say yes, definitely, and I know that most researchers who study violence in children would consider it to be violence as well, albeit of the impulsive childlike variety. Context is everything: I don't think these little kids were being violent in the same sense that, say, a drug dealer is violent, or, for that matter, a policeman making an arrest or a soldier on a battlefield--in fact, each of those contexts--the motivation, the intention, the situation--are different, and produce different types of violence with different levels of potential for harm.

7. This is one reason some over-controlling (frightened) adults want to eliminate kids' rough play. Pretty common for some kid to go too far and some other kid to get hurt or mad. But that's one of the ways we learn boundaries and self-control. You hit your friend for real and the play date ends. It's a great way to learn where fantasy stops and reality starts. Too bad adults sometimes have such a hard time distinguishing between their own fear-based fantasies and their kids' realities...


chicago pop said...

Very interesting set of aphorisms and inferences.

The Golden Rule in this case, to me, is #12. If all you remember is that, I think you're three quarters to home base.

I'm hoping it works in other areas, like if Spot sees me reading a newspaper -- which he does regularly -- he will grow up with an antiquarian passion for consuming media in obsolete formats. Same with books.

Hopefully none of these are destined to share the same fate as Beijing Opera or medieval jousting.

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog... you think too much, ( "...he will grow up with an antiquarian passion for consuming media in obsolete formats."). Children just want to be loved. It's not that complicated.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"you think too much"


"Children just want to be loved."

True enough. And yet it's still the case that parents and teachers routinely struggle with how to respond to play violence and actual violence. Some people just try to banish it from their homes and classrooms; others use it to teach moral lessons. People struggling with these issues, myself included, need to talk them through.

Variations On A Theme said...

Another great, thought-provoking post. (And I gave up Facebook after one week. I loved it too much. It was such a time drain.)

My four-year-old son is so different from his sister when she was four. His favorite form of play right now is Super Heroes Smashing Bad Guys to Smithereens. We do this with stuffed animals, playmobil, cars, blades of grass, whatever he can find. I feel okay about the smashing, because I believe that play is sacred and should not be infringed upon, (as suggested by Bruno Bettleheim, I believe.)

But I start having a hard time when he wants to shoot bad guys with guns. (When he points a stick at me and "pows" me, I pretend to get if it were a water gun. Umm...yeah, right mom.)

I also took a Children's Literature course about 15 years ago and the main thing I remember is that (according to some psychologists) children need those stories - the ones where the good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad (no shades of gray), and there is significant (even deadly) recompense for acts of villianry.

And it's best if a dragon's head gets cut off...the gorier, the more firmly planted in a child's mind is the the moral.

Also, I can't recall where I read about this, but when kids witness acts of extreme violence (more often in inner cities, but can happen anywhere, of course), the kids often play out the horrible scenes, which become the favorite recess-time games played over and over and over. Psychologists say this is therapy for them. They work out their issues through play.

Funny thing about my little guy...he adores babies and has been asking for one for the past year. (Sorry, kid. Not happening.)

He's also very soft and gentle with my friends' toddlers - even when they grab toys from him or smash something he's building. He might get upset, but he never acts out against them. (His sister, of course, is another story....)

WordGirl said...

Well, I am certainly not one to ever criticize anyone for thinking too much.

I love how thought-provoking this post is. As a mom to three girls, I'm not sure where I fall on all of this. I did find the Achilles example particularly insightful. I've also noticed that my middle daughter is, in some ways, more comfortable playing with boys because there is less artifice (even in 2nd grade). With boys, she can be rough, they can play together, fight together, get upset with each other and it's all over in five minutes. This cycle often does not apply to playing with a group of girls.

It was also interesting to read your post and some of the comments and realize that some of what others might characterize as violent play, I would just see as playing. Where I get queasy and uncomfortable is with guns. It's one thing to push each other around, it's another to introduce a man-made weapon into the game. But I have three girls, so this hasn't been a huge issue.

Thanks for thinking things through online.

Chip said...

dang that facebook!! It can be a time sink...

Chip said...

ps love the comment "you think too much"!!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious . . . In all your research on this topic, have you come across anything definitive regarding violent tendencies in children or teens who engage in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons? We are gamers, and we've always enforced the house rule that characters are good, and the violence they do, via die rolls, are for the sake of the good. We've had some interesting discussions spawn from our tabletop sessions . . .

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Tysdaddy: Ha! I love it. I don't know (right now) of any research about role-playing games in particular, but everything I know about fantasy play says that no, it will not all on its own lead to real-world violence, especially if an authority figure (like the parent) is actively discussing the morality of the play violence. The bottom line (I'm starting to believe) is to get kids thinking about consequences, to use the violent play as another opportunity to stimulate empathic thinking. From that point of view, I think it's fantastic that you play D&D with your kids and that you talk with them about the violence in the game.