I RECENTLY attended a child’s birthday party. While we grownups sat jawboning around the diningroom table, a ruckus broke out. A little girl of about five ran from the kitchen, chasing the birthday boy. She wielded a plastic AK-47 assault rifle, which sparked and sputtered as she fired at the boy.
“Now, now, play nice,” said our host, the boy’s father, casting nervous glances at the other adults, as he pried the toy gun from the girl’s hands.
Presumably, our host had no aversion to toy guns. Since it was lying around his house, I assume that he must have bought it for his son. Yet he seemed uneasy about letting the other grownups see it. Perhaps he feared being denounced as a promoter of future Columbine shootings.
Society’s rules are changing fast. It’s no wonder that parents have a hard time keeping up. What was innocent play yesterday might be looked upon as a hate crime tomorrow.
When I was a boy, one of my favorite toys was a plastic Thompson submachine gun that sparked and sputtered just like the little girl’s AK-47. My playmates and I also wielded realistic-looking plastic trench knives, Colt .45 automatic pistols, six-shooters, tomahawks, bows and arrows and so forth.
We did not have ultra-violent video games such as Doom, but our imaginations supplied comparable levels of gore. Inspired by Western movies, we often pretended, during our cowboy-and-Indian games, to be inflicting gruesome tortures on each other. We might pretend to be scalping someone alive. Or we might go through the motions of pretending to bury a prisoner up to his neck in an anthill, while he, in turn, pretended to scream in agony as hundreds of imaginary ants burrowed into his eyeballs.
Did this sort of play harm us? The Mia Farrows of this world would say yes. “I don't let my kids play with toy guns, even with squirt guns,” Farrow told Larry King in a June 2, 1999 interview.
The Mia Farrow types believe that play violence conditions children to be wife-beaters, serial killers and schoolyard snipers. But does it?
On this subject, the politically correct crowd contradicts itself. Most of the time, the handwringers of the left claim that Mother Nature knows best. They say that global warming, soil depletion, mass extinction of animal species and other infelicities of modern life are caused by man’s arrogance in trying to bend nature to his will. Even sexual restraint is discouraged, on the grounds that carnal desires are “natural.”
But when the topic turns to aggression and violence, the liberals sing a different tune. It doesn’t matter if aggression is natural, they say. It must be suppressed.
Scientists have long noted that, when young animals play, they mimic violent behavior. Kittens bite, stalk, scratch and pounce on a ball of string, reproducing the motions of attacking and killing a small animal. Young deer chase each other, practicing the charges, feints, leaps and quick turns that will one day help them elude and fight off predators.
Humans are the same. Children playing hide-and-seek will scream in mock terror when their hiding place is discovered, exactly as they would scream in real life, if found by a stalking predator or foe.
Scientists say that all this chasing and fighting stimulates the nervous system, building up important neural connections in a young animal’s brain. Mock fights also teach animals to interact with others of their species.
“Through play bouts, an animal’s aggressive tendencies are socialized,” says Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, an expert in primate play, who is Chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD. “The animal learns when to submit and when to pursue, and it will learn how to lose a fight gracefully.”
Indeed, Suomi observes that monkeys who play less when they are young tend to be awkward and ill-at-ease in their mating and socializing as adults.
As beneficial as play fighting seems to be for young animals and humans, the Mia Farrow crowd wants it stopped. They would reject millions of years of evolution for the sake of their pacifist notions.
What will be the long-term effects of suppressing children’s aggression? Nobody knows. But, with more and more parents and teachers embracing a “zero-tolerance” policy for play violence, it appears we are going to find out.
I hope the experiment will not end too disastrously. But it probably will. As the environmentalists are constantly warning us, Mother Nature has a way of fighting back when she is thwarted.