Boys will be Boys

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Upon beginning my career in education,I took the banning of all violent imagery from my classroom very

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 directly 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 rational 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 Sam 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 kind of funny. Sam’s father was puzzled and called Sam over. Sam slowly revealed through his conversation ( and his awkward, waddling gait) with his father that he had smuggled several toy tigers out of the house in his underwear and was waiting until his dad left and I wasn't watching to bring them out.

While initially I found this to be simply a humorous anecdote, as I later reflected on it ,I wondered what would
drive this generally 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 that my rule was “no weapons”. Therefore, they had to lie to me to comply with my rule. I had unwittingly created a situation that forced children 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? To what do I object 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 and weapon 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 the war/weapon  play happening in front of me.

Once I understood the child dictated 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, manipulatives could be weapons, but again, not pointed at any living people. When they were playing a game, I would stay close to assist with rule clarification if I was needed. 

Someone could not be designated as the “bad guy” or “monster” without that persons explicit consent. They needed to agree to play and were free to walk away from the role when it was no longer fun for them.

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

Devin explains to his peers 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 sans whitewash, went on until it got too dark to be outside.

Had I warned them or forbidden whitewash as part of the game would the issue have ended so suddenly and completely? I seriously doubt it. 

Part of the value of play is to negotiate socially acceptable limits agreed to by all the players. Had I forbidden whitewashes, I would have spent all afternoon trying to squelch the urge to whitewash by 15 boys who were dying to rub someone else's face in snow. Letting them experience the consequences of a non-fatal decision allowed the players to discard something that didn't work and quickly move on to a much happier game that wore them ( and me) thoroughly out by the time it got too dark to be outside.

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 choose to look at the value of this type of play for the child. 

What were they working out? What were they testing? How could I guide without imposing my adult needs and views onto play that was essential to the child?

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. They were even allowed to wrestle in the classroom - and we had a mat where they could do that, as long as they took of their shoes.

My little wolf pack calmed down. I accepted them as boys. They, in turn, accepted me as their Alpha Wolf.

June 2007, Gimlet Eye

1 Baleful Regards:

Anonymous said...

Again--love you.

And this reminded me of my boys (I have 3) when they were young and playing with some friends children. One of my boys got reprimanded by another mother for pointing his 'gun' at another child as they were playing. After she left and we were talking about it he asked me-- "Doesn't she know these are pretend guns? They don't shoot. They don't even have pretend bullets."

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