They Must Play

Yesterday I posted a few of my kids’ drawings depicting their Star Wars imagery. The pictures elicited a comment where another blogger was concerned that my belief about this being a part of children’s culture and not anything to worry about, was something that I might regret saying if someone were to be murdered by a lightsaber sometime in the near future. I found this blowing things way out of proportion, and resolved to write a blog post addressing the subject since I think this issue might be on many parents’ minds.

Lightsabers are extremely popular amongst little boys in Finland these days. To say that allowing children to play with these toys and to draw them would somehow be condemnable because some madman might decide to kill people with one is like saying that people who put pictures of Jesus on their walls and pray before dinner are to blame when some religious fanatic shoots non-believers. Or wait, that’s what people are actually doing with the muslims, but never mind that now.

Yesterday’s post was really short and I wanted to keep it light. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that violent drawings can happen in kids who are perfectly healthy and normal and have no history of violent behavior, but being pressed for time, I forgot that you readers don’t necessarily know that my kids are like that. It’s so obvious for me that sometimes it’s easy to forget.

My kids are well-liked amongst their peers and generally commended for their good behavior. If anything, they’re less violent than their peers and that’s not just my opinion but the day care’s and the relatives’ too. Of course they display aggression at times, but this is normal. Aggression is not an on-off thing. It’s a continuum. There is such a thing as a normal level of aggression.

Aggression is in fact very useful, since with too little aggression, we aren’t even capable of standing up for our rights. Aggression is not the same as violence. When you say: “You didn’t take out the trash again” or “I’m watching the football now”, you’re being mildly aggressive. But that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with normal levels of aggression as long as they don’t escalate into actually violent behavior, and with most people they don’t. Most people have learned how to deal with aggression in a healthy manner.

Denying aggression’s existence is sticking your head in the bush and pretending the lion’s not right behind you. It’s a much better idea to tame the lion. Children should be taught to find mature ways to deal with their aggression, such as talking. “Use your words,” is what many parents keep saying and modeling to their kids over and over again, and a little by little the kids start hitting less and talking more. With the parents’  help, they mature.

It’s normal for boys (since it’s usually boys, although obviously individuals preferences vary) to play games involving fighting, warfare and weapons. Before it was cowboys and Indians, now it’s Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. They might also draw similar subjects. This behavior alone is as likely to lead to violent behavior as watching a Tarantino flick is for an adult. Actual violent behavior in a kid who has reached sufficient maturity to deal with aggression in other ways isn’t about one thing, but about many things going wrong at the same time.

When should a parent worry about drawings? Some kids who’ve had traumatic experiences go through the same trauma in their drawings and play. When this happens, the child perseveres with the same thing and the playing is no longer playful. This is definitely a cause for concern. Sometimes it may just mean that the child has seen or heard something that is weighing on his or her mind. Then the parents should discuss it with the child. If the child seems incapable of moving on, and seems anxious or unhappy, then there might be grounds for consulting a professional.

When we start worrying about normal child development, children’s culture or normal displays of aggression, we’re barking up the wrong tree. You could call this the Exorcist-scenario, where people fear that their perfectly normal, lovely child will all of a sudden turn into a monster. But that’s not how it works.

We tell kids not to confuse play and real life, but sometimes I feel like it’s the adults who are more prone to getting them confused. Most kids are well aware of the difference between reality and make-believe, whereas adults start exaggerating and reading too much into what is perfectly normal child behavior.

Sometimes adults are so worried about their kids witnessing violence in games and on television that they forget to concentrate on what is really important, which is how the kids are faring at school/day care, do they have friends, are they happy, energetic and playful, do they sleep and eat well. Playing a video game every once in a while is not a problem, but spending hours at the console every day is. Common sense and moderation go a long way.

Children are essentially very simple creatures. They need love, attention and boundaries that are neither too strict nor too lenient. That’s not always easy to deliver, but the idea is simple. I know my kids have sufficient quantities of all these. They’re healthy, happy and well-behaved. That’s why I don’t worry about what they draw, and neither should anyone else.

The beauty of play and its adult version, art, is in the fact that play is not real. It is a way of handling things that are hard to handle in real life, of morphing our fears, aggressions and sorrows into a form that is not dangerous to others and that at its best even leads to resolving some of these tensions. Or it can simply be a joyful expression of things one enjoys, such as Star Wars.

I don’t believe in censorship of adult art and I don’t believe in censorship of children’s play. If you raise them happy, and raise them healthy, a drawing is just that – a drawing.


If you are still wondering about how much children’s drawings might reveal of their psychological state, I’ll reference an article that has links to research findings about the projective drawing tests (which are supposed to be the more reliable method of drawing conclusions about children’s drawings) that are sadly still being used by some psychologists and other professionals even in the forensic setting. Their validity is not good.

And here is a link to a study that has studied children’s drawings portraying the typical trend of boys’ drawings being typically more violent.




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