March 7, 2012
Recently my son has been playing lots of aggressive games. The characters in his games get shot, covered in volcano lava, eaten by sharks and killed by pirates. This has led me to ask myself whether I should play along with this aggressive make-believe play or discourage it. So what does psychological research say? Landy and Menna (2001) compared how mothers of non-aggressive children and aggressive children played with their children. The mothers and children were observed playing with a variety of toys through a one-way mirror. Dinosaurs and a crocodile were included amongst the toys to encourage aggressive play themes. Landy and Menna found that mothers of aggressive children were more likely to stop aggressive make-believe play. They were also more likely to say things like ‘That’s not nice’ or ‘That’s unkind’. In contrast, mothers of non-aggressive children would play along with the aggressive play, taking on the voice of certain characters and pretending to be scared, killed or eaten by crocodiles and dinosaurs. The mothers of non-aggressive children were also more likely to talk about the character’s feelings during the play, saying things like ‘I think she must be upset’. In addition, these mothers were more tuned into their children’s feelings during the play, so if their children started to show that they were uncomfortable with the aggression in the make-believe play, the mothers would suggest things like ‘the crocodile wanted to be friends now’. This study lends support to the idea that play enables children to work through their anxieties. Landy and Menna suggest that children become more aggressive if they cannot act out their aggression during play. If aggression is not released during play, then it ends up being acted out physically through hitting, biting and pushing. Cohen (2001) in his book ‘Playful Parenting’ argues that children use play to come to terms with their own and other people’s aggression. He believes that if aggressive play is forbidden it leads children to become more aggressive in real life. However, Gordon (1993) found that some children’s play can entirely revolve around killing and destruction. This seems very much like some of my son’s play recently. Landy and Menna (2001) suggest that playing with children as much as possible and getting them to extend the themes in their play so that having a nice dinner or going on holiday are incorporated into the aggressive play can help children move away from repetitive aggression. Having read these studies I have allowed my son to engage in aggressive make-believe play as much as he wants to and I have also tried to reflect the feelings of the characters my son wants me to pretend to be. I know that he has learnt many of these games from the older boys at his preschool including words such as ‘Shoot, kill and die’ so I am allowing him to understand what these words mean at home in a pretend situation. He has also been quite upset recently by some boys saying ‘I hate you’ to him (I have spoken to his preschool about this) and I think allowing him to engage in aggressive make-believe play at home has helped him deal with his emotions. I am pleased to say that his play has become a little bit less aggressive this week but this seems to have happened naturally as things have calmed down at his preschool. However, I know that I shouldn’t be worried either way.