Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Violence and play

J -- my almost-10-year-old -- is currently obsessed with professional wrestling. Professional wrestling, not to be confused with amateur wrestling, is a showy, scripted, non-athletic event, in which the different contestants have costumes, personalities, and special "moves" that they perform in matches with other contestants. It's really quite silly, and sometimes quite violent, although I do remember vividly that my dad was into it when I was kid, and my brother and I were as well (probably my brother more than me). So now, the circle has all come around, and J has caught the wrestling bug.

In addition to watching wrestling on TV, J bought (with his own money) a wrestling game for the Wii, which he plays CONSTANTLY. When I can stand it, I go downstairs and watch him play for a while. Parts of it are kind of cool: each wrestler has a song that is played during his entrance, and he walks out, arms raised, pumping up the crowd. J actually dances around the basement while this is going on. Next, the match starts. The contestants -- who actually look fairly realistic in the game -- fight using different moves against their opponent. Some of the moves can be pretty violent, such as bashing your opponent's head into the floor. J likes to describe the grosser moves to me, perhaps to get my reaction.

What J really likes to do is watch wrestling on TV, and then go downstairs and perform the moves he has just seen on the Wii version. It's similar to when he is watching baseball or football, and then wants to go outside and try out his own skills.

All this is fine. Except: it's violent. More violent than anything that we've allowed him to do so far.

So here's my question: is this just a normal part of male development, to be interested in something as silly and also as violent as professional wrestling? Or should I be worried?

In trying to answer my own question, I happened to listen to Speaking of Faith recently, and the topic of the episode was Play. What the guest speaker (Dr. Stuart Brown) talked about that I found so fascinating was that both children and animals need rough and tumble play in order to develop properly. They learn about their abilities, what they can and cannot do, and how to get along with others during this kind of play. Consider this quote from the show:

Dr. Brown: Well, I think we know a lot about it (play) through the wonderful laboratory rat. They make a particular squeak, that's inaudible to humans, as a signal that they want to play. They then wrestle with each other and pin each other, particularly during their juvenile times. They engage in what a number of investigators call hardwired rough-and-tumble play. And the outcome of that is quite striking, because if the laboratory investigator stops the rats specifically from playing, there are some dire consequences. They do not socialize normally. They can't recognize friend from foe. And there are other very specific kinds of outcomes, which to my way of thinking, to some degree, match some of the human outcomes. But, of course, they're in rat language and human outcomes are much more intricate.

He continues:
Let me sort of go on a riff about rough-and-tumble play …which occurs in children both genders, but is a bit more obvious usually in boys. If you are to observe kids, like in a preschool, that are involved with all the exuberance that preschool kids have age 4 — 3, 4, 5, and you watch them at play, it's chaotic, anarchic, looks violent on the, to the surface. They're diving. They're hitting. They're squealing. They're screaming. But if you look at them, they're smiling at each other. It's not a contest of who's going to win. And most well-meaning parents and a lot of, certainly, a lot of preschool teachers put the lid on that … because it's, you know, it's scary, a little scary for an adult … because they don't remember. And almost, always has pretense and real. It has violence and fantasy, and it is the borderland between inside and outside in making sense of the world. It's a very important part of free play driven from within by the child's own personality and temperament in mixing with others. Now, you were surprised when I said things like empathy and trust earlier … in our discussion. But think about this. If, if you are in a rough-and-tumble situation, somebody hits you too hard, you know what that feels like. So you're not going to hit, in general, hit somebody else too hard, because you know what it feels like. And that's the roots, for example, of an empathic response. And the thing that — none of the murderers I studied engaged in normal rough-and-tumble play. Absolutely none. And if you extrapolate the rough-and-tumble play backwards into animals, they also appear to need it to be able to properly find their place in the troop or the tribe or the pack and develop a social reality to meet their needs.
So this makes me feel better. Maybe enjoying professional wrestling (which is at its core violence and fantasy) will help J not become a murderer, and even more, it will help him learn about himself in the world. I sure hope Dr. Brown knows what he's talking about.


Anonymous said...

This is a major issue that many parents and others are grappling with. You should check Diane Levin's work (wheelock faculty) for more on this issue.


Unknown said...

Before I give my rambling thoughts, let me say what an interesting blog entry. I really liked it, especially including the stuff from Tippet's show!

I have real issues with the violent play thing too - as another Jewish Feminist (and former peace activist and psychologist) mother. I'm not sure that it means the same thing when four year olds engage in rough and tumble fighting play as when older children do. In other words, is it reasonable to generalize from four year olds to school-age children?

An interesting question would be to look at the behavior of children in less violent societies. Do they engage in these sorts of play at these ages? I think sometimes it's easy to forget how violent our society is compare to other Western societies. But when you look at issues like gun ownership, levels of physical assaults and so on, the US is actually pretty violent.

One thing I'm interested in is how to address this kind of play in kids. One doesn't want to make it a big power/control issue. So far, I've been lucky and Adam hasn't yet begun to play violently.

I'm still way behind you in motherhood. I haven't dealt with issues of older kids, so perhaps I still have overly idealized ideas about this stuff. I dunno.


Pavlik said...

Hmm. I supposed we'll be thinking about this too in a few years. At the moment Simon doesn't even watch Sesame Street. But I did watch my youngest brother go through a WWF phase. He is now 21 and seems none the worse for wear from the experience.

Neither I nor my other brother had the slightest interest in WWF or anything similar, though we did wrestle quite a bit with each other (an unbalanced match, since I'm 6 years older).