Explaining inappropriate play to preschoolers

“Lets go play bad guys! Let’s chase the bad guys and shoot them!”

This is the kind of game my 6 year old is invited to play at the school playground.

Asking around, answers as to why these boys play violent games like this vary:

  • It’s a boy thing
  • We used to do the same when we were kids
  • My parents played Cowboy and Indians in the same fashion
  • Too much tv
  • Too many video games

I don’t know what the right answer is for everyone, but I do know this:

  • I don’t like the violence, on school property or at home. Talking about appropriate behaviour and helping him understand and deal with it is part of the challenge, for me and for the child.
  • Although we don’t have video games in our home, and don’t plan on acquiring any in the foreseeable future, I don’t deny Ben to play them at his friends’ homes.
  • I can, and do, restrict the type of violent games he may play when I am present (which is most of the time), either at school, at the the park or with his sister or friends at home. How? Redirection to a sports-related activity works for my kids, but not always for their friends.

One thing to remember, to always focus on, is that kids learn by observation. Especially young and impressionable children. So as I see more and more aggression in some of the boys at the school yard, which likely is influenced by video games (to my knowledge, at least), I have had to find ways to speak to Benjamin about what I expect, even when I am not there to guide.

For example, yesterday my mom went to pick him at at Kindergarten, and as is customary, weather permitting, the kids run off steam at the school playground immediately after they are let outside.

The first thing my mom noticed was the invitation to play chasing/shooting/killing the bad guys. I’m not sure exactly if the bad guys were imaginary, or if some of the kids were chosen to be one or the other, but the ‘shooting and killing’ part of it reminded me of how some of the video games are set up.

Aside note: I am clueless to what type of video games are out there, or what is deemed appropriate for 5 and 6 year old kids. I do know that especially those kids who have older male siblings tend to have access to the more advanced, aka less appropriate types of video games. Same thing could be said for tv, and I know this for a fact since this happens in my own household. Benjamin likes to watch Sponge Bob (which is ridiculous beyond words, in my opinion), which means my 3 year old will also watch it with him. I never in a million years would have even considered letting Ben watch something like this at 3, yet here we are…

My point is this: I have had to come up with ways to explain to Benjamin about good and bad, as well as shooting and killing. And this has been harder than I had imagined.

The first thing I thought I could do is to define good and bad.

Good guys vs bad guys

Ben’s first exposure to good guys vs bad guys was actually through his legos. He is incredibly interested in anything emergency related, so naturally he has the police station and all its accessories. On the box, there are pictures of lego men in black-and-white jail getup, with ‘bad guy’ expressions on their faces (god forbit I accidentally put the face of a bad guy on the body of a policeman or construction worker!).

Back when he was 3 years old, I tried to explain (rather ineffectively, actually) that so-called bad guys are sometimes referred to as criminals, who are essentially just people who made a bad choice. One with certain consequences. But that didn’t really resonate with my little preschooler. So I let it slide.

Fast forward to today – he’s 6. Does he, can he, understand about bad guys? In lego? Or in video games where the whole aim is to ‘shoot’ a bad guy? What about in life? Or what he may see on tv?

(For the record, I spoke to the friend’s dad and he said the boys play race cars, hockey and Super Mario, and occasionally Ninja Turtles on video games. Where Ben gets the aggressive terminology from is probably from the friend’s older brother or other kids at school who play video games.)

What exactly happens with Super Mario I’m not sure. I do know that the Ninja Turtles have certain weapons (I am a product of the 80s…) but I don’t know what they do in the video game version. Do they defend themselves against bad guys or are they actually chasing the bad guys?

When I pose these questions to myself, and get all riled up, I force myself to take a step back, and to look at my kid.

Does he take an interest in violence? What is his prevalent choice of play?

The answer is sports. Any sport. He converted the basement into a hockey rink, turns on a hockey game (there’s always a hockey game to be found on tv in Canada), and whacks his ball around, practicing his shots. He may take a break to kick a soccer ball around for a bit (MOOOOOM pleeeease play soccer with me!!) and when I join him for 10 minutes, barking orders at the 3 year old to dial 911 should I show symptoms of a heart attack (lol) (but not too loud!), he is sooooo happy, so thrilled, I say to myself:

Self. What are you worried about?

But there is that lingering question of good vs bad, isn’t there. It’s the premise of society. The exposure is everywhere. And the kids practice the variations of these words on each other with varying results.

Which brings us to the next portion:

Killing and shooting

How do you approach the killing and shooting part of game playing? It’s a tough question, since at this age, the kids have likely at some point been exposed to death in one way or another. Perhaps an uncle, or grandparent died, or a beloved pet.

But do they understand the finality of death?

And what does this mean when they play ‘shoot to kill’, whether in video games or outside? (I do prefer the outside version, at least they’re running.)

There are no guns in this house. No water guns, no toy guns. There is a plastic bows-and-arrow thing with foam darts, but they have been instructed not to aim at people or animals. So they aim at the neighbour’s roof or into a tree and there goes the dart which ends that form of shooting…

Finally, there is that historical element to this type of play. Like so many people will remember, they, or even their parents, played some form of aggressive game involving chasing and ‘play-killing’ someone.

So what do we do?

As I mentioned before, we talk to the boy. We provide guidance and help him to understand, and we expect him to deliver to our expectations.

Plus there is always that redirection to a sports-related activity. At age 6, there is no reason why a child would deny a game of kicking a ball into a net. If there is, ask yourself why. Why would a 6 year old child not want to run outside?

I hope we’re on the right track.

3 thoughts on “Explaining inappropriate play to preschoolers

  1. My answer to your question (why these boys play violent games like this) would be this:

    It is a natural way to learn to cope with the realities of life.

    What if your son wants to become a defender of the needy (a policeman or a fireman)? Chances are, he has learned to be a good guy. And you learn to be a good guy by understanding that there are bad guys.

    My kids learn a lot from role play…

    Aggression likely linked to video games? Hmmmm. (Wonder if you ever felt aggressive? Probably playing too much video games, eh?) (“aggressive terminology from is probably from the friend’s older brother or other kids at school who play video games” — sweeping generalization, honestly. Talk to my cousins, all well over 10 years older than I and they taught me a colourful expression or 20 while I was growing up and the only video games they heard of — on the way to 20 yrs old well after they had learned those lovely terms — was that table tennis thingy which came out years before pacman…)

    And to be honest? My sister played Rep Soccer (very competitive, Canada champions years in a row for her age group). You ain’t never learned so much about “good guys and bad guys” and colourful expressions until you have seen parents in the bleachers of competitive sports. Just ask Bensky’s dad… go one, I’ll wait πŸ™‚ !

    I personally take this type of play with my boys (the girls were never as interested) as a keen and growing sense of justice as well as figuring out how good verses bad pans out in our world. I see it as a natural development because I see the compassion which they also develop.

    I bet, too, that Ben is super sensitive in this area. Why not engage in conversation about justice, fairness, how society deals with injustice etc. And let him play the bad guy once in a while.

    All those people who said: I played like that as a kid or my parents did that as kids… have they all landed on a list in your mind? Like: if anyone of us is about to “tip” it’ll be those who played like that as kids?

    I’m rambling, aren’t I? Ah, you know me, always good for the counter argument πŸ™‚ !

  2. Oh yeah, we also loved to play with guns as kids… me and my sister and the guys in the neighbourhood… better go in hiding next time we meet, I might go bananas on ya πŸ˜‰ !

  3. Thank you for this perspective. I think I will need to let this perculate (let him be the bad guy for once! – lol) and respond in another post.


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