Children, War, Play, Violence (and Barbies)

When I started out on the adventure of parenting, I assumed that I was too smart and enlightened to have war play in my family. Two boys and many years later, I have quite a different perspective. I’m certainly more humble, but I’m no longer satisfied with the old question of how to prevent childhood practice for war. I’ve found questions that seem bigger and deeper. Where do we experience violence in our homes? How does conflict fit into power dynamics and sex-role training? How can we actively engage with the emotional needs of children engaged in play that we find troubling?

We have some solid ground from which to start the exploration of these questions. One of the most wonderful things about being parents is that we are reminded every day of a central tenet of Quakerism: that of God in everyone. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the human beings who are our children are good. (If only we could remember that their parents are just as good!) Just as our deepest longings are to be aligned with the spirit of God, so too is that true for our children. Thank goodness our job as parents is not to take the basically sinful nature of children and transform it into something godly by rigorous applications of virtuous practices. The job is not even to take the blank, neutral slate of a newborn and write on it to create a loving and compassionate human being. Our job is simply to speak to that of God in our children.

Just as there is something innate about our children’s goodness, they (and we) have an underlying tendency towards love and towards treating other people well. Nobody has to be trained out of a nature that is violent at heart. Connection to goodness can be obscured, but it doesn’t have to be taught. As parents, we get to act from a wellspring of love and compassion as best we know how, to reach for the same in our children, and to reflect what we see back to them. It’s like manners. Children don’t need to be trained in good manners; they need to be treated with good manners.

But we also have to set policy. In our effort to raise peace-loving children, it’s easy to lump conflict, violence, and war play together and try to avoid them all completely. We also get a little satisfaction, perhaps, in being against war play. It is one concrete way of standing on our principles. But conflict and violence are two enormous, complex, and overlapping phenomena—and I see war play as a very small subset, to the extent that it has anything to do with either.

As Quakers, we are pretty ambivalent about conflict. On the one hand, we are deeply committed to reducing the levels of conflict in the world, seeing the ever more destructive ways it is waged as a major scourge of humankind. On the other hand, we ourselves are in significant conflict with many of the values and assumptions of the world around us. We understand the importance of bringing that conflict to the surface, of speaking truth to power.

This conflict about conflict plays out in our families. Many of us are strongly attached—by belief, training, or fear—to “peace at any price,” making the avoidance of conflict a positive goal at home. Yet in reality, our lives are full of conflict. Spouses argue, rules are resisted, siblings use each other, and all bring their upsets home where it’s most safe to let them out. If we can’t acknowledge conflict openly—in ourselves and in our children—it just goes underground, becoming inaccessible to resolution. Somehow we need to see war play—or perhaps our conflict with our children about war play—as embedded in this larger context.

While conflict has some redeeming qualities (though many of us hate to admit it), violence is another story. We are less conflicted about violence. According to the dictionary, to violate is “to infringe, to break through a boundary without right.” Its opposite is “to respect.” While we are used to thinking of violence as physical, emotional violence may be just as damaging. It is possible that war play may be less violent than some adult behavior in our families that isn’t subjected to such close scrutiny.

The other big framework within which war play must be considered is that of sex role training. Male training is the issue most clearly at its root. While many parents make heroic efforts to avoid passing traditional, narrow sex role assumptions on to our boys, we can’t avoid it. The assumptions are in the air, and little children have long, sensitive antennae. They pick up tones of voice and facial expressions from relatives and people on the street. They take in the images from television, advertising, and stores. Most of all, they learn from older children, whom they watch like hawks for clues about how to carry themselves. (While some would argue that boys are innately wired for aggression, we’ll never know for sure until the world treats little girls and boys with exactly the same expectations of humanness; only then can we consider what interesting biological differences might remain.)

Through play, children are trying to figure out the roles that are assigned to their respective sexes. While our attention is pulled to male training and the vio-lence of war play, however, it is no more human to be trained as a passive sex object than as a soldier. Yet girls’ sex role play often doesn’t set off the alarm bells in Quaker families that war play does. We need to remember that along with our Testimony on Peace we also have one on Equality; Barbie play deserves equal scrutiny with war play.

Many parents are aware and proactive around general sex role training—offering information and options outside narrow role stereotypes, modeling alternatives, shielding their children as best they can from the crudest stereotypes, noticing if they seem to be internalizing messages about who they have to be, and encouraging them to be fully human. Yet war play persists. I have worked at a preschool with lots of little boys who were determined to shoot (with just their fingers if all else failed) and raised two of my own. Being around them and all their friends in the midst of endless war-type play, running what seemed at times to be a full-scale munitions factory in our basement, struggling to introduce nonviolent themes into their games, and trying all the while to stay relaxed, flexible, and unworried (no mean feat!), I have some observations about how to interact with this phenomenon.

It’s been very helpful to me to move away from the simple moral position that war play is bad. That position boxes us—and our children—into a very narrow space. If play that they find so irresistibly attractive is bad, how can they be anything else? I’ve learned to look at war play not as a cause of violent behavior, but as a result of messages about power and violence that they are getting from the outside. Letting go of the urgency of stopping immoral play, taking a firm hold on my understanding of how good our boys are, noticing the quality of the play, and looking for roots of violence, I see a tremendous amount of variation.

I have seen children in friendly agreement, engaged in energetic fun with no violence (that is, nobody is getting violated) that many people would label as war play. In our house rubber band guns were all the rage for a couple of years. The basement factory was busy, and the boys and their friends spent hours racing up and down the stairs, jumping out from behind doors, and gleefully shooting each other with rubber bands. It was a high-energy form of entertainment that everybody loved, and when I found rubber bands in obscure places months afterwards, I smiled at the memory of the pleasure they had given.

Sometimes people are genuinely fascinated with some technical aspect of a war toy or the skill involved in using it. I’ve seen a little boy shoot a foam dart gun over and over again, working to perfect his aim. The activity was pure personal challenge and skill-building, with no relation whatsoever to war.

At other times, however, the theme of the play is war, and there is a troubling tone. One child is consistently in the victim or the bully role, or the game is being used as a way for a child to express anger. Or there is a rigid war script being played out, with no individuality or creativity showing. Clearly there is an issue in each of these situations to be dealt with—but chances are it’s not war.

More than likely a child is acting out an experienced hurt in an attempt to get help. The question here is not how to keep children from playing war games, but how to help them with the issues they present in their play. How do we love a bully? How can we invite our children to express their anger? How can creativity be injected into lifeless scripts, or more interesting alternatives be offered?

In a way, these questions are more challenging. They can’t be answered with a statement of belief. They require us to think and to be actively engaged with our children as they play. We get to make our best working guess about what is really going on, move into the play, and offer our attention and resources to deal with that issue. If a child is attacking or being attacked with an ugly tone, we might change the focus to adult-child power relationships, making ourselves the target and lightening the tone. We might offer a pillow fight as a good way to let off steam. We might offer a new context that allows more play for creativity, so that soldiers become explorers or Olympic athletes.

If we watch closely, the right response can emerge. I have a memory, still as fresh as the day it happened, of a little three- or four-year-old boy in a play group pointing his finger at me. How to respond to “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” was still a puzzle for me. I didn’t want to moralize, but couldn’t hit on an engaging alternative. Yet he kept persisting and I kept experimenting, knowing that there was something he was looking for, some reason for playing out this fantasy. I began to notice that he looked scared and lonely. This was not surprising. You’d have to feel that way on some level at the point of pretending to eliminate another human being. It looked as if this little boy belonged in someone’s arms.

I’d been experimenting with dying, and trying out a loud dramatic ending to give some substance to the game and make it a little more interesting for me. Now I added to it some physical contact. As I died, I fell on him with great drama—and care. Our bodies got all tangled up together, and I explained that I couldn’t move since I was dead, so he had to exert some effort to wiggle free. The change in tone was incredible. His face relaxed, and his high-pitched, scared, and forced-sounding laugh changed to irrepressible chuckles that I could share with him. He was delighted with the chance to show how strong he was in struggling free, and he was immediately ready to repeat the shooting so he could be fallen on again. We were in warm, lively contact, and I could see the fears rolling off with the laughter.

The scenario hadn’t changed. He was still pointing a finger and saying, “Bang, bang, you’re dead.” I was still entering into his game, and ending up the “victim.” But in a more significant way, the play had been completely transformed. It had started as a game of dominance, loneliness, and fear—a game that played out all that’s inhuman in the way men (and women) are trained in our society. Yet it had become a game of closeness, laughter, and physical challenge—all parts of being human that we would wish for everyone.

What surprised me most, though, was not the extent of the transformation, but how easy it was. As soon as I noticed how scared and lonely he looked, it was easy to think of how to change the game. And as soon as he was offered an alternative, he was ready and eager to take it. Our little boys do not want war training. It does not come naturally. It does not fit well. If we can remember this, we have tremendous power to help them out.

While we stretch to find a human response to the war games that our precious children play, it makes sense to campaign against the selling of war toys as well. Though some may disagree, I am not so worried about homemade toy weapons. Children have power over their own construction. They have exercised their imagination, their skill, and their creativity—and they know the reality of what they have made. Store-bought war toys seem much more dangerous. They can be extremely realistic; they usually come with narrow negative scripts and seductive advertising budgets; they glorify war and killing; they’re expensive; and they crowd out alternatives. As we campaign against war toys, however, let’s remember gender equity and consider a campaign against sexual submission toys intended for girls as well. It may well be the women who will have to lead us out of this war mess in the adult world, and our little girls need all the reminders of their real power that they can get.

There are also many positive things we can do to raise nonviolent world citizens—which may have as much or more impact than how we handle war play. When we treat others with complete respect (especially those less powerful, such as our children) we are offering a clear alternative to the model of military (and these days primarily Western) world dominance. When we invite the world into our lives (via foreign visitors, our choice of TV programs, books, vacations, and restaurants) we are offering real contact with people who can’t then be a “faceless enemy.” When we share world history and geography across cultural boundaries, we change the illusion that our experience is the only one. When we model conflict resolution—not using our greater power to win and not caving in to pressure, but listening and showing respect, being flexible and creative about solutions—we are giving our children tools for a lifetime.

And when we talk openly about what we love, we are inviting them to the deepest truths.

Perhaps most of all, we can stay close to our children, including our sons, by snuggling, being soft, playing hard together, and not letting them go off lonely and strong. We can remember their goodness and show our love and confidence in them even—especially—as they are trying on the less-than-human role models that our world offers them.

Pamela Haines

Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. She raised two children from birth, acquired two more along the way, and runs a family center with her husband—along with her paid work of building leadership and advocacy among childcare workers. Her writing also appears at