The Importance of Play

The way a child wants to play is often very different from the way his parents want him to. The child, however, knows best
Becoming Civilized

In psychological treatment a child might be encouraged to shoot a toy pistol at a figure; this might be done either to free his aggressions or to discover their source and intended target. But this occurs in the presence of an adult acting as a therapist, in an "as if" therapeutic situation. If a parent encourages his child to shoot a toy gun at someone, even at himself, in a normal play setting, it is a mistake—he is not taking the child's play seriously enough. If he were, rather than just pretending to do so without paying close attention to what the play is all about, he could hardly encourage such an unequivocal show of aggression against another person, not to mention against himself.

A common mistake adults make in reacting to a child's play is taking it as "not real." But in more than one sense play is the child's true reality, and we have to respect it as such. This is why we ought not to encourage our child to shoot at anyone. But this caution refers only to our encouragement. We may very well give him a toy gun to use as he likes or sees fit, be it for his protection or for aggressive play. Whether, when, and how to use such a toy should be entirely the child's own decision. Our giving him the gun implies our permission to use it as he wishes, when and how he feels a desire or need to do so, but no more. More important, it also implies our confidence that he will use it in a way that is appropriate, even wise, as seen from his perspective.

Children have a need to rid themselves of their aggressions, at least through symbolic play, and it is sufficient permission to do so when we give them toys suitable for that purpose. If we encourage a child to play aggressively, we exercise—however subtly—control over the activity, which is likely to increase his frustration or aggression and with it the need for discharge. But if his aggressive play is directed toward us—as it might be, not necessarily because he wishes to hurt us even in play, but because he wishes to discover what our reaction might be—and we do not react appropriately to what he does, then we effectively demonstrate to him that we take neither him nor his aggression very seriously. If we show a contradictory approach to the play by initially intellectualizing ("Let him work off his aggressions") and subsequently attempting to render the activity harmless ("Even though you've just 'shot' me, it means nothing"), our attitudes destroy the serious qualities that play has for the child.

When a child "shoots" his parents, should they shoot back? Certainly not. Counteraggression by an adult—whether in play or in earnest—has never yet proved beneficial to a child. Nevertheless, it is not much help to him to shoot us with his toy gun unless we react appropriately. The reaction, of course, must be not to his action as such but to his intentions. Only our on‑the‑spot assessment of what motivated the action can tell us whether the best response is admiration of the child's assertiveness—what a powerful warrior he is!—or a playful dramatic collapse to the floor, or a show of anxiety, or a question about how he will manage with us out of the way. A well‑placed question such as this one is much more effective in convincing a child that shooting and killing are detrimental to his well-being than any theoretical discussion of the evils of war and violence. This is because the child lives in the immediate present and within the limited confines of his direct experience. Wars, even those he sees on the TV screen, take place in some far‑distant place and have no bearing on him that he can understand. And should we succeed in impressing on him the tragic consequences of war, the primary effect will be to infuse him with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. After all, the youngster is smart enough to figure out that he has no effect on what is going on somewhere far away in the world. But shooting at his parent is something he can control. Almost any child realizes that however angry he is at his parent, however much he may want to get rid of him at the moment, he does not want to lose him forever.

Some adults may overreact to shooting play. Parents who fall into this trap are usually concerned more with their own feelings about aggression than with helping a child to master rather than merely repress his aggression through such play. This is also true with respect to bodily and other types of anxiety that many children try to cope with through shooting play, such as with water pistols. So when parents forbid such play, they block the safe and necessary outlet it can provide. At the same time, they rob the child of the valuable lesson that if we try to shoot someone, that person may shoot back, and everybody will lose.

Some parents, out of their abhorrence of war and violence, try to control, or forbid altogether, any play with toy guns, soldiers, tanks, or other toys suggestive of war. Although these feelings toward violence are most understandable, when a parent prohibits or severely criticizes his child's gun play, whatever his conscious reasons for doing so, he is acting not for his child's benefit but solely out of adult concerns or anxieties. Some parents even fear that such play may make a future killer of the child who thoroughly enjoys it, but the pitfalls of such thinking are many and serious.

First, as playing with blocks does not indicate that a child will grow up to be an architect or builder, and playing with cars and trucks does not foretell the future auto mechanic or truck driver, so playing with toy guns tells nothing about what a child will do and be later in life. Second, one may reasonably expect that if through gun play a child feels that he can protect himself, and if he discharges many of his aggressive tendencies, then fewer of these will accumulate and require dangerous ways of discharge in later life. Parental prohibition also leads to additional frustration and anger, because the child is prevented from using an outlet that he sees made available to other children and that is suggested to him by the mass media.

Third, and by far the most important attitude, because whether spoken or implied it is the most pernicious in its consequences, is parental fear that the child may become a violent person. This thought is far more damaging to the child's emotional well‑being and his sense of self‑worth than any play with guns can possibly be. This is particularly true because of the, importance to him of his parents' view of him. After all, a child gains a view of himself primarily from his parents. If they seem to hold such a low opinion of him, it is apt to make him very angry at them and the world, and this increases his propensity to act out his anger, not just in symbolic play but in reality, once he has outgrown parental control.

Girls are as subject to all kinds of frustrations, very much including sibling rivalry and anger at their parents, and so it would serve them equally well to be able to discharge their anger through symbolic play, such as with toy guns. Furthermore, it would prevent their frustration at being denied an important type of symbolic play that is available to boys.

Parents who worry exclusively about shooting play often fail to take into account the duality of our human and animal natures and the distance between them. Certainly there is a great deal of the animal—and with it of violence—in human beings, and sometimes these irrational forces do appear in children's games, making many parents uncomfortable. But more often it is actually the child's developing sense of humanity that motivates what seems to the uninvolved and uninformed parent to be mere brutality. Since ancient times children have played out war games in which we fight them, them being the enemy of the historical moment.

Children of the Middle Ages surely played at being knights and infidels, just as our own children play at being cops and robbers. Elizabeth I is said to have inquired whether the boys were now playing the war of the English against the Scots. In Europe early in this century much play involved the Foreign Legion against the Arabs. And as soon as the wall went up separating West from East Berlin, German children began shooting at each other across miniature walls. Such battle play invariably features the conflict of good and evil in terms and images that a child can readily grasp.

In a game like cops and robbers a child experiments with moral identities. Such games permit him to realize his fantasies. Acting out the roles of cop and robber permits him to get closer to the reality of these characters and what it might feel like to be them, which reading or watching television cannot provide. A passive, receptive role is no substitute for active encounters with experiential reality.

Psychoanalytically speaking, such conflicts between good and evil represent the battle between tendencies of the asocial id and those of the diametrically opposed superego. Such battles—either dramatized by two groups of children warring against each other or acted out by one or more children manipulating toy soldiers—permit some discharge of aggression either actually or symbolically, through conflict. Only after such a discharge of anger or violence can the forces of the superego gain ascendancy to control or overbalance those of the id; with that, the ego becomes able to function again.

As we watch the progress of aggressive activity in our child, we can gradually discern a developmental move from free play, which permits direct id expression and satisfaction (the unstructured free‑for‑all shooting match, in which aggression is freely discharged), to a more struc­tured game setting in which not mere discharge of aggression but a higher integration—the ascendancy of good over evil—is the goal. So we destroy them: the Greeks defeat the knavish Trojan wrongdoers, the Christian knights destroy the infidels, the cops corner the robbers, the cowboys crush the savage Indians.

As objective adults, we may know that the Trojan culture was perhaps superior to that of the Bronze Age Greeks, and that the case of the Indian was at least as strong as that of the cowboy. But such objectivity is the end product of a protracted intellectual and moral struggle, a long process of cleansing, tempering, and refining the emotions. For the child such objectivity is not yet possible, because emotions, not intellect, are in control during the early years. Our children want to believe that good wins out, and they need to believe it for their own well‑being, so that they can turn into good people. It serves their developing humanity to repeat the eternal conflict of good and evil in a primitive form understandable to them, and to see that good triumphs in the end.

When play and games have firmly established the ascendancy of good in the child's mind, so that the outcome of the fight is no longer at issue, he can turn to humanitarian refinements of the original war game—the enemy becomes imaginary, and the child's attention is focused instead on the good feeling of comradeship against a common enemy. Then the issue expands to encompass no longer merely order against chaos and good versus evil but sublimation of violent emotions.

At this point the problem ceases to be whether the knight will win out over the infidel (of course he will) and becomes whether he will be able to do so with elegance, according to the protocols of the ring or of knightly virtue. Thus the game determines not merely which is stronger—id or superego, my primitive I or my socialized I—but also whether the ego can ensure the victory of the superego in ways that enhance self‑respect. Good must triumph over evil—and it must do so in a way that demonstrates the value of our higher humanity. When the knight errant slays the monster, he does so to free the captive maiden. Good has prevailed, but it has prevailed for a purpose, gaining erotic (id) satisfaction as part of the bargain. Thus ego and superego combine to promise the id a reward if it does their bidding. Serving the good is reinforced by the motivating force of a higher purpose.

When a child acts out this understanding, he begins to appreciate a lesson that cannot be taught to him in a purely didactic fashion: to fight evil is not enough; one must do so in honor of a higher cause and with knightly valor—that is, according to the rules of the game, the highest of which is to act with virtue. This, in turn, will promote self‑esteem, a powerful incentive to further integrate id, ego, and su­perego—to become more civilized.

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