My Wolf Pack, or where I get all "professional" on you

Monday, January 30, 2006

Upon beginning my career in education, I took the banning of all violent imagery from my classroom very seriously. I screened all books for what I perceived to be gratuitous or disturbing imagery. I carefully explained my “no toys from home” policy to incoming families, using my well-reasoned arguments against guns, media, socio-economic leverage and other injustices. If that didn’t work, I would use the veiled threat that I was sure that the toy would get broken and I couldn’t be responsible. During the initial reign of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Power Rangers in back of them, I stood firm. No war play, no toys from home, no pretend guns.

During my fourth year of teaching, I had a particularly rambunctious group of four year olds – mainly boys. They had no intention of going along complacently with my rationale adult way of thinking. My first inkling that my ideas were being challenged was when I watched one little boy walk awkwardly into the classroom one morning. “Good Morning Sam”, I greeted him and his father as they arrived. I pulled Sam’s father aside and asked him if Sam was all right – that I noticed he was walking funny. Sam’s father was puzzled and called Sam over. Sam slowly revealed through his conversation with his father that he had smuggled several toy tigers out of the house in his underwear and was waiting to bring them out.

While initially I found this to be simply a humorous anecdote, as I reflected I wondered what would drive this very honest child to think up a fairly elaborate ruse to get around a solid classroom “rule”. I began watching the boys more carefully. When I would come upon them building with any number of manipulatives, conversation would stop if I lingered to ask what it was they were building. I watched these boys’ faces struggle. They knew they were building weapons and I knew they were building weapons. They also knew my rule was “no weapons”. Therefore, they had to lie to me to comply. I had unwittingly created a situation that forced them to lie to me in order to sustain their play. This was not the teacher I wanted to be. This was not the classroom I wanted to have.

The children in this classroom weren’t engaging in sustained play, simply because I kept interrupting them to insure they were following my “no war play or weapons” rule. I never stopped to ask them the context or the “rules” of their play, I simply assured myself that they were following my agenda and reminded them I was monitoring them.

So I began to ask – Why not? What do I object to in this play? What am I afraid that will happen? What message are the children getting when they play with weapons? Have I asked them why they like this play?

My eventual stance on war play softened. I backed off my exclusionary stance. I began asking more questions about the play – non-judgmental questions – Could they explain how this game is played? What were the rules? Truthfully, it took the children some time to trust my interest as sincere. Slowly, they began explaining the context of their games, and I began to understand the complexity behind war play.

Once I understood the rules of the games, I could assert my needs and negotiate with the players. Sticks could be weapons, but should never be pointed at a real person. Likewise, mainpulatives could be weapons, but again, not pointed at any living people. When playing a game, I would stay close to assist with rule clarification if needed. Someone could not be designated as the “bad guy” or “monster” without that persons implicit consent. They needed to agree to play.

One of my most memorable game experiences was one in which a group of five year olds boys decided to have a snowball fight after a lovely blizzard. We suited up and hiked outside. I gathered the group to clarify the rules of the snowball fight. Each child had the opportunity to add a rule, or clarify the terms of the game. They were pretty standard – no ice balls, if you threw a snowball, you were agreeing to play the game and that meant you could get hit by a snowball…. when Devin came up with a new and unexpected request. “Let’s do whitewashes”, he said. The group considered this. “Does everyone understand what Devin means by this? Devin can you explain a whitewash so we all know?”
Devin explains that whitewash means you can rub someone’s face in the snow, or rub snow in someone’s face. The boys readily agreed.

I clarified “So, I hear that we are agreeing that it is Ok to rub snow in people’s face as part of the game”. Again the boys all eagerly agreed.

The game lasted about 4.5 minutes with everyone in tears at the end. We re-grouped and agreed that whitewash was not a part of the game anymore. The game, now revised, went on until it got too dark to be outside.

Had I warned them or forbidden whitewash would the issue have ended so suddenly and completely? I doubt it. Part of the value of this play is to negotiate socially acceptable limits to the play. Had I forbidden whitewashes, I would have spent all afternoon trying to squelch the urge to whitewash.

We cannot hide human nature from children. They already know more than we imagine. We can, however, provide avenues for safe exploration of feelings of power and powerlessness. I never want a child to have to lie to me to sustain their play. Rather than deciding, as an adult, that a child’s explorations of violence, power and death were too disturbing to me, I chose to look at the value of this type of play for the child. What were they working out? What were they testing?

When that door opened in my mind, I was able to live more comfortably with the gamut of violent characters. The boys in my classrooms did not obsess so intently on specific games or images. Once they had explored a topic, they dropped it. I accepted the games as they came along, and asked to have the rules explained to me. We would negotiate anything that I considered to be out of bounds as the teacher ( hitting, or other overtly aggressive physical contact) and the boys followed my guidance. My little wolf pack calmed down. I accepted them as boys. They, in turn, accepted me as the Alpha Wolf.

15 Baleful Regards:

Anonymous said...

Dawn, thank you for sharing that experience. Having two girls, I haven't had to worry about weapons/violent play much, but before we had kids I was always adamant about not wanting guns/violent toys in the house. If you'd asked me why I am not sure that I could have come up with a reason, however -- other than that my mom's older brother had a gun accident which killed him at age 16. But creative play is not real life, and I know that rationally (it's the emotions that would be talking with me in this argument...)

Now I see though that it makes more sense to give the kids parameters -- set the absolute limits, but have them figure out where to draw the lines in more gray areas. As you indicated, just forbidding certain behaviors outright only seems to make them more attractive.

Anonymous said...


Have you read Jane Katch's book "Under Deadman's Skin"? I thought we had talked about this once, because she references Bettelheim and his work quite a bit (she used to work with him). I used this book for my Master's thesis, and it directly addresses the points you raise here.


Dawn said...

Thanks Nancy.

I kind of "phoned this one in" - it was a piece I wrote a while ago for something else. I do know that when we loosened our "No Gun Play" policy at the child care center, we observed a real decrease in the desire to play it. More creative play started to ensue - with long complicated themes. It stopped being "chase and capture " games and started to have some depth.

Plus with that pack of boys ( Whom I still lovingly call my Wolf Pack) forbidding something was the invitation to go crazy. They were smart and could effectively outwit most adults when they acted in tandem. Saying that something was "unsafe" when they knew it wasn't just made you look foolish and non-credible. We had many conversations about how to become credible to this group of boys - so they could trust and listen to us.

I particualrly think in rural communities ( such as is ours) there are many families in which hunting is still a viable activity. Many of these children have eaten venison. They know about shooting at something to kill it. To have to tell me the gun you are making from legos, or your finger is a "Snowblower" is a lie. The child knows it and I know it.

But I also worry greatly about the boys in our culture in general. They tend to be in what I call "feminine environments" - School, child care etc. They are expected to function in ways that mostly women expect them to act...Cooperative, sharing, quiet play. Boys have a different brain chemistry than girls. Their brain chemistry demands that in order for them to learn something, they have to be moving. This also translates into a certian need for some rough and tumble play. However, this play is severley curtailed in most of these environments. I'm not suggesting we allow boys to have carte blanc to beat the bejesus out of each other - but they do need to be physical. And 15 minutes of gym isn't going to do it.

And Becky -

You totally KNOW I read Jane Katch... and Bettelheim. I quoted her as part of my doctoral bibliography. Jane Katch Rocks. I love the new book too - the "They don't Like me".

Anonymous said...

I just TiVo-ed and watched "Raising Cain", a documentary on PBS that covers this so wellthat I HIGHLY recommend.

I have a 4 year old son and have been watching as my ideas clash with his imagination. It's quite eye opening.

The documentary raises the distinction between real violence and imagined violence and how boys react to each. One argument is that telling boys (through words or actions) that pretending to kill one another is "wrong" is inherently telling them that they are bad because that is such an integral part of them as people.

In contrast, they should be protected from real images of violence with blood and gore and emotional resonance, but cowboys and indians doesn't qualify as such.

The 2 hour documentary explores boys from birth thorugh adulthood and is really interesting. Look for listings on PBS.

Anonymous said...

This is an issue that I studied a lot in Gender Communication courses in grad school. The questions raised had more to do with the nature/nurture issue around boys and war/weapons play vs girls and doll/mommy role playing.

It seems incredible to me that there is no way to control this type of behavior in boys or girls, but I see that you are right and that we, as adults must find a way to reframe it to either more gender neutral play, or as you did by allowing the play within certain parameters.

What a difficult task.

Mignon said...

I read this and immediately thought of the 4-yo boy in my daughter's preschool class. His parents are ultra-intelligent pacifists. No tv in the house, kids don't go to movies, no guns, no violent toys, and it goes without saying, Andrew is the most violent and boysterous kid in the class. He also knows about all of the action heroes on tv and in the movies and in his pretend play he's always Spiderman.

I love this post and I'm sure will mentally refer to often as my son grows...

Anonymous said...

I think total abstainence when it comes to stuff (especially with kids) breeds obsession in the opposite direction. Everything in moderation with some level of understanding... We want what we can't have...

I was never allowed to have sugar or candy or ANYTHING and I used to hide it in my closet - go to the neighbors and eat hotdogs and kraft cheese. It was bad.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm a total dork-Jane Katch is IN the Raising Cain documentary that I commented on earlier. Ok, Duh. I just looked it up on PBS and there's her picture. So, yes, it's a great program.

mamatulip said...

I'm impressed. It's very easy to take a certain stance and to maintain it, vigilantly, but it takes a special kind of person to navigate away from that stance, to ask the questions you asked and see things from a different point of view.

Very interesting post, 'phoned in' or not. ;)

Lisa said...

Yes. If you watch a few boys 4 and older, just "play" you quickly learn that their idea of a good time is to beat the crap out of each other. Oy. My little man is pretty quite and passive but when these kids start screaming at him and pushing him, it starts to rub off on him. And dear god, I don't want to raise a caveman. Its a tough thing. But yeah, my little man LOVEs to play monsters and to "scare" us. Not so much into weapons just yet.

Anonymous said...

Oh, stop it with the "I phoned it in": this was an excellent, articulate post. Thanks for sharing it.

Mama D said...

Tea Leoni, beautiful wife of the beautiful David Duchovny said on the Ellen (holy name dropping Batman!) that she tried to shelter her son from violent toys and he had never seen a toy gun. Even so he'd get a stick or something else and call it a gun. It seems to me that boys are just wired that way which I find very interesting. I loved how you handled your wolves and if I ever have a boy I will be asking you for advice when he's trying to drop kick Audrey. Although if she's anything like me she'll be able to hold her own!

halloweenlover said...

Great post, Dawn. I love the idea that if we just flesh out what kids are doing it will fade on its own.

I'll have to remember when I have children.

Table4Five said...

Dawn-excellent post. I too had the "no weapons" rule and then had to revise it when I realized that my boys and their friends were going to pretend that just about anything was some kind of weapon. Yet the games they played never involved any violence, it was more like "pretend I blasted you with my laser and you fell down, okay?" Like you, I had to accept them as boys.

Julie Marsh said...

Dawn, you know I only have girls, but I've spent enough time with their caregivers and classmates (both back in NJ and out here in CO) to know that you are absolutely right on. What fantastic common sense and such a novel way to approach to inevitable way that boys will play.

Tacy used to build guns with Lego, point them at us and say, "No guns!" Just exactly what she observed at school every day.

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