Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Evil That Kids Play

This idea crystallized for me recently while giving Liv a bath. She has a pretty well-entrenched contingent of bath toys at the moment: a wind-up set of diver, sub and shark, a rubber blowfish from Archie McPhee's, four plastic fish, also from Archie McPhee's, a bucket, a net, and several animal-shaped washcloth/puppets.

Liv's an imaginative kid and contrives all kinds of games with these few toys. Their relationships and identities morph freely. It isn't unusual for the fish to be Whinney the Pooh and Tigger or the submarine to be married to the shark.

One particular day, she asked me to be in on the game of the moment. I was going to be one of the fish and the poodle washloth puppet. The fish, she told me, was the baby, and the poodle, Prida, was the mother. Liv would be playing the part of the blowfish and shark.

I asked her what we were doing. "Shark and blowfish are going to try to spike your mama, and you have to try to stop them." Lovely.

I tried the "I don't really want to play a game about spiking" tact, but she wasn't having it, so I figured I'd be sneaky, play along and help her see where the game was going to go. I dutifully swam my purple plastic fish back and forth between the shark and blowfish and Prida, pleading in a little fishy voice "Please don't spike my mama. I love my mama!" as her two would-be assailants circled their way in. She was undaunted.

And, to be perfectly honest, it stopped affecting me on the "I'm-a-progresive-parent-trying-to-discourage-violent-play" level and just got under my skin. I was trying to reach her, but it was me that got creeped out first. I pulled the plug on the game and explained it just didn't feel good to me to play a game about spiking a mama and kid. Liv flashed me a wicked grin and spiked my abandoned fish with the blowfish's barbs.

Now, I don't think that Liv is going to grow up to be a sociopath. She's especially empathic with her classmates, always the first to try and make things right or make a kid with hurt feelings feel better. I think she's just playing at evil, trying it on to figure out what the allure is.

And it isn't just her. Liv's afternoon preschool has kids that turned five back in September and kids that won't turn five until August, but all at once, as though some group-think tipping point was reached, they have all been playing more violent games. Sticks become guns and swords much more quickly than ever before. The terms "blood" and "human-eating" and "kill" have entered their imaginative play. All at once, they seem to be trying evil on for size, sometimes as a group but just as often in their own individual ways.

A co-worker and I were talking about this just the other day. His son, less than a year older than Liv, is fascinated with weapons at the moment, which for a while unnerved my friend. But, he told me, he remembered back to his own childhood, to his own fascination with weapons, and now he wouldn't touch a gun, is in fact one of the most gentle people I know (all 6' 4" galoot of him).

I agreed at the time. I agree still. I loved guns as a kid, whether the green clear plastic squirt gun or the lever-action rifle with ricochet sound or the black plastic M-16 with the clickety-clickety-clicker machine gun sound. And now I hate guns. Hate 'em. It just shouldn't be that easy to kill another human being.

So, I know that I really shouldn't worry about Liv and her PreK mates trying evil on for size. It is play, and much like dreams rarely lays out a clear causal path to interpretation.

But, I'm also paying attention, because I've known guys who loved toy guns that ended up snipers in Desert Storm and brought back a finally-gratified bloodlust from Iraq, and are currently very bad dudes. And I can see those few kids in Liv's class whose delight in playing of evil exceeds the others, and have in mind one boy in particular that I only ever see smile when he's just inflicted some pain on another child.

In either case, it wasn't the play so much as the kid that led them to where they are at or going. That I get. What I don't much care for is the knee-jerks on either side - those that squash all evil play or who ignore it.

Not even so sure I have a point. Maybe just a parting analogy. "They" call marijuana a gateway drug because users of harder drugs almost universally report having tried marijuana first, yet the vast majority of marijuana users never proceed to the hard stuff. I'd submit that playing at evil is much the same thing.