Four-year-old Harrison and his friend Tyler are playing in Harrison’s bedroom. The boys are laughing and having fun together when Harrison’s mom sneaks by the bedroom to see what they are doing. She is appalled to hear Harrison say, “Here, you take the knife and you can cut the baby’s eyes and I’ll shoot her with the gun!”
What should Harrison’s mom do? Should she allow the play to continue because ‘boys will be boys?’ Should she punish Harrison for his play for fear that he’ll actually do something like this to a real person someday? Or should she consider getting counseling for Harrison because of the morbid theme of his play?
Every child has a unique combination of the 9 different traits of temperament. Each trait has it’s own continuum and a child can fall anywhere on that continuum for that specific trait. One of the traits of temperament is mood, which means that children can fall anywhere on a continuum from having a very positive, upbeat and optimistic attitude about life to having a negative, pessimistic mood that could include behaviors like arguing, opposition, whining and even morbid play themes, like Harrison’s.
When children fall on the negative side of the continuum for mood and demonstrate behaviors like opposition, aggression or negative play themes like Harrison’s, their parents are rightfully concerned about what this means for the child’s future.
If Harrison plays like this at daycare, preschool or the formal school system, he will quickly be viewed by the child care and teaching staff as a threat to other children. His risk then increases for being singled out as a problem, which could ultimately result in him being kicked out of daycare or preschool or even public school. While this is an inherent temperament trait that makes up his personality and dictates how he will initially respond to most situations, this does not mean that his parents and teachers should just ignore it and let him be who he will be. There’s a difference between allowing an artistic child to skip sports to engage in more creative activities because it is his strength compared to allowing a child to play out a murder scene simply because he has a negative mood.
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So what, then, are parents and teachers supposed to do when a child—who has a natural tendency to be negative because that’s the way he was born—plays out a morbid scene reminiscent of a Law & Order episode? Let’s take a look at a few options of ways to respond to this type of play that might help decrease the morbid and increase the socially appropriate way of playing.
The first thing that parents and teachers want to do when they see a child playing in a violent, aggressive or morbid way is to punish the child by providing a consequence like a time out or losing the privilege to play with those toys. But this isn’t the type of consequence I’m suggesting adults offer. Instead, I’m suggesting that adults provide natural consequences, in a calm manner, within the play scene.
Let’s take Harrison’s example again. Remember, Harrison has asked his friend to poke the baby in the eyes with the knife while Harrison uses the gun to shoot her. If Harrison’s mom were to introduce consequences within the play she would do something like this:
Mom: (entering the room calmly and without judgment of Harrison’s actions) Uh oh, it looks like this baby got hurt. She got cut with a knife and shot by a gun. I better call the police so they can help figure out who did this. Let’s see, we’re going to need a police man…here’s one! And we’ll need a police car. Harrison, do you have a police car somewhere?
Harrison: Here’s one.
Mom: Great! Now we have a police man and his police car coming to see who hurt this baby. I wonder what the police man is going to do to the people who hurt the baby.
Harrison: He’s gonna arrest ‘em!
Mom: He is? Why is he going to do that?
Harrison: ‘Cuz he’s mad at the people for hurting the baby.
Mom: Oh, so it was wrong for the people to cut and shoot the baby?
Harrison: Yup and you gotta go to jail when you do stuff like that!
When consequences are introduced into the play—instead of provided to the child as a result of his negative play—the child has the opportunity to be a part of the provision of the consequence. Instead of Harrison being punished for his negative play, he now has become part of the problem solving team to discuss the real-life, natural consequences that would come from his actions in play. He has a chance to use play to learn and practice the real-life consequences that will come from various negative actions.
The reason adults have such a hard time with morbid themes of play is because we have (hopefully) achieved the concept of empathy. Even though we know that the baby is an inanimate object, we still have concerns about the feelings of others because the child is pretending to torture something that represents a living thing. If the child were using the gun to shoot at a target, we wouldn’t be so concerned about it because it doesn’t represent the idea of hurting someone else.
Children who play out these themes of harming other people may need a lesson in empathy. Just as adults can introduce ideas about consequences into the play, so too can they introduce ideas about empathy into the play.
In Harrison’s case, his mom could do something like this:
Mom: It looks like the baby got some owies on her eyes. I’m going to see if I can find some Band Aids to help her feel better. Which Band Aids do you think I should use, Harrison? The Toy Story ones or the Frozen ones?
Harrison: That baby’s a girl so I think she wants Frozen ones!
Mom: Ok, Frozen ones it is. Now, I wonder where those Band Aids are at?
Harrison: I know where they are! (running to the bathroom to get the Band Aids)
Mom: Thanks, Harrison. Now let’s grab two of them, one for each eye where she has the owies. Would you like to help take care of her owies?
Harrison: Uh huh!
Harrison, Tyler and Harrison’s mom work together to put the Band Aids on the eyes and then Harrison’s mom shows them how to hold the baby and comfort her. She teaches the boys the song that she used to sing to Harrison when he was a baby and he was crying. When the boys have both taken a turn at comforting the baby, Harrison’s mom suggests that they go get a snack.
Instead of punishing Harrison and Tyler for playing in this way, Harrison’s mom took the opportunity to teach them about how the baby would feel in a situation like this. She connected the baby’s feelings to Harrison and Tyler’s actions (without accusing them of being terrible people), but she also connected with Harrison based on his own experiences as a child (using Band Aids to fix the owies, just like she does for Harrison; singing the song to comfort the baby when she is crying, just like she did for Harrison when he was a baby).
Instead of providing a consequence to kids when you see them playing out some negative, or even morbid, play themes try intervening in their play to bring about a better teaching opportunity. By introducing consequences and empathy into the play, you allow the child to play a role in understanding how this play will affect his life in the long-run, instead of establishing a consequence for the child that may miss the mark on teaching how real life will provide consequences for these actions over time.