Notes on children and violence

I am guilty guilty GUILTY of neglecting my blogs, including this one. 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.)

4. 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…