On Saturday morning, Mom sits at the kitchen table eating cold cereal, while 18-month old Jason toddles alongside the sofa and 4-year-old Evan watches his favorite superhero television show. When the show stops for a commercial, Evan begins imitating the kicks and hits he has seen on the screen. He whirls suddenly and kicks Jason in the chest, knocking him down. Their mother stares in shock. "Evan, why...?" She runs to comfort Jason, who is wailing loudly.

Only yesterday, Evan's caregiver complained about him kicking a block tower another child was building. "Why is Evan so hurtful?"  Mom wonders. "What can I do?" Many parents have grown concerned about children's aggressive behavior. It may begin innocently enough in pretend play but too often results in children hurting themselves or others. Many parents also worry that society in general has grown more violent and fear the effects of violence in the media and the marketing of toy guns.

"Kids have always played this way," some say. "I watched cowboy movies and played with toy guns, and I didn't grow up to be a killer." It is true that children have been playing fighting games, using toy weapons, and watching violent cartoons and movies for years. But children today live in a world dramatically different from that of past generations. Years ago, neighborhoods were free of drive-by shootings, and no one brought handguns or illegal drugs to school. Certainly our parents and grandparents played "cops and robbers" when they were children. They used plastic cap pistols with a sheriff's star or another emblem embossed on the side. Everyone knew the cops were the "good guys" and the robbers were the "bad guys."  Those days have long since passed. Today many toy guns are realistic copies of semi-automatic assault weapons. Children do not necessarily perceive cops as "good guys," and they regard an assortment of disreputable, aggressive characters as heroes. Even worse, many children witness violent acts in their homes and communities. Some are the victims--or perpetrators--of violent crimes. All children are affected, regardless of their race, religion, income, age, or gender.

Play as preparation for life

Most early childhood experts believe that play is important to learning. It allows children to practice skills they will need as they grow and learn. For example, playing with blocks helps children learn basic thinking skills--comparing sizes and shapes, experimenting with cause and effect. Play materials and the guidance given by adults affect how children will develop, not only mentally but also socially and emotionally.

Since play is important to learning, consider how aggressive play prepares children for living. What does it teach your children about solving their problems? How does it affect their social interactions? And how might it impact their physical safety and survival? It is natural for children to occasionally exhibit aggressive behaviors in response to certain situations. For example, children might act more aggressively when they are in unfamiliar settings such as a new child-care program. In addition, children might hit or kick when they feel frustrated or angry. Common sense reminds us that things happen every day that confuse and anger children. For example, Annie, 3, is desperately trying to get a teddy bear from another child. Since she does not yet have the social skills, language, or patience to get what she wants, she might push, hit, or even bite to get the teddy.

Some early childhood specialists point out potential benefits of aggressive play. They suggest that it offers children an opportunity to feel strong, confident, and in control. It also allows them to express feelings of hostility and frustration and to experiment with behaviors that may not be appropriate in other social situations. While this may be true, others believe that such play reinforces many negative behaviors and social skills. Deborah Prothrow-Smith, assistant dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, expresses concern about the violent material created exclusively for children"--superhero characters, toy weapons, movies, television shows, and related merchandise such as clothing and games. She also points out that this material teaches our children that violence is funny, entertaining, painless, guiltless, and rewarding. In addition, many toys reinforce dangerously misleading perceptions about the real consequences of aggressive behavior--mainly, that guns and weapons do not really hurt or kill people.

Toy weapons vs. real-world violence

Most of us have heard stories of children accidentally wounding or killing someone with loaded guns they mistook for toys. We have also heard about children being shot and killed by police who mistook the toy gun a child was holding for an actual weapon. James Davis, member of the New York Police Department and founder of the Anti-Toy Gun Campaign, reported that in a recent year more than 300 felonies in New York City involved the use of toy guns. If adults cannot tell the difference, can we expect children to do so?

Many parents, educators, and health professionals agree that while these toys cannot be viewed as the cause of aggressive and anti-social behavior in children, such play has no redeeming value. More important, realistic toy weapons threaten children's basic safety and survival. As a result, two leading toy retailers, Toys R US and Kaybee announced last year they would stop selling realistic toy guns.

In a recent national survey, 91 percent of teachers responding indicated that the increase in violence in their classrooms was due to the "crossmedia marketing" of television shows, videos, toys, and other licensed products that contain or suggest violent themes. Besides the link to aggressive behavior, these shows and products tend to encourage repetitive, unimaginative play. Children re-enact what they have seen on television rather than creating their own themes and story lines.

How much is too much?

Parents and caregivers have different opinions about the amount of aggressive play they allow children to participate in. Some do not allow any types of aggressive play. Others permit some but have firm rules about what children can and cannot include in such play. For example, Mrs. Smith allows her children to play "army" but sets a "no toy guns" rule. Still others allow aggressive play in the belief that such behaviors help children to stand up for themselves" and "not let anyone push them around." While we want our children to feel strong and independent, this approach may not be effective in the long run because when they grow up, they will have to respond to conflicts with words, not fights. Regardless of approach, parents and caregivers are responsible for ensuring children's safety. Thus, if any child's play and behavior interferes with his or her own safety and development or that of other children, we have a duty to quickly intervene.

What does aggressive play teach children?

What does empowering play teach children?

Here are suggestions for redirecting aggressive play to empowering play.

  1. Show your children that they are admired for being themselves and doing the things children do naturally.
  2. Help children express their feelings in a variety of ways.
  3. Encourage children to express their feelings by drawing pictures, telling stories, or dancing.  
  4. Introduce children to positive role models in your family and the community.
  5. Redirect the physical energy involved in aggressive play
  6. Share your concerns with others, and ask for help when needed.

Children face challenges that we could not have imagined even a decade ago. We parents also face challenges, many of which seem overwhelming and frightening. Although we may not be able to control what happens in the world as a whole, we can often control what happens in our homes if we pay attention.  

Adapted from an article by Valerie Ramos-Ford, Ed.M., in the Summer 1995 issue of Texas Child Care.

For more information, check these books:

Carlsson-Paige, N. and D.E. Levin.

Who's Calling the Shots? Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990.

Prothrow-Smith, D.

Deadly Consequences : how violence is destroying our teenage population and a plan to begin solving the problem. New York : Harper Collins, 1991.

Texas Parenting News is published by the Texas Department of Human Services for free distribution. c1995, DHS.

Address questions and comments to:

Texas Parenting News P.O. Box 162881, Austin, Texas 78716-2881

Valerie Ramos-Ford, Ed.M

Educational Consultant -- Early Childhood Specialist  -- valdhi@pluto.njcc.com