I was once that aggressive boy. I was. My mother tells me, that when I was in kindergarten, I’d come home sometimes and be so enraged that there was nothing that she could do to get me to talk, listen, engage in any way. The only thing she could do was to hand me an old plate (we didn’t have new plates) and let me throw in on the kitchen floor. As it shattered, my spell broke, I could smile again, and come back. She would then ask me to clean it up, and I’d say: “But you said I should throw this plate on the floor.” Knowing that I was right about that, she collected the pieces.
Later in my elementary school years, I would spend most of my indoor playing time with toy soldiers, model tanks, airplanes and boats. I learned a lot about the military theatre of World War II, could tell about the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden in Holland and of course, D-Day. These soldiers were lined up in formation in my room, re-creating these battles. For years, that is how I played—again, indoors. I could, and still can, tell the difference between American Sherman tanks, British Centurions, Russian T-51s, and the feared German Panthers and Tigers.
I also played outside. Cowboys and Indians, WWII scenes, or simply staged mud fights between ground level “troops” and those who had climbed on the roof of the local kindergarten, where we hurled mud, clay, pine cones and other things that would sting but never really injure. And we got in trouble for that, including with the police. We also roamed the neighborhood and we knew when to turn the corner, because other groups of boys were there and they fought for real, for no good reason, but for real, bloody noses and all.
And then one day, I forget exactly how old I was, I put this all away. I collected my arsenal, put it in boxes, stored them in the attic and … became a pacifist. I became part of the anti-nuclear armament movement, raising more money at the age of 15 then anybody else in my hometown of Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the country. I prepared myself for conflict with the military, which had compulsory conscription at the time. There was nothing more pointless, I realized, than to be drafted in the military, be driven to a battle in an armored vehicle and be killed by a nuclear explosion in less than 10 seconds, which was the estimated average life expectancy of a soldier in a battle with the Soviet Union.
This is precisely what modern play theory would predict. As psychologist Peter Gray writes in his book Free to Learn:
Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. (p. 169)
You tell me why a 14 year old is calculating his life expectancy in seconds. And how is a boy to deal with that? If that does not infuriate you, I fear you are hopelessly lost and out of touch. In the end, the military never did call me. They had enough boys and didn’t need me.
What was it that caused me to be so enraged as a kindergartener? I asked my mother about it a few years ago and according to her, it was always a situation where I felt powerless in the face of gross unfairness. Schools treat children poorly, very poorly. The schools of my childhood did. And whatever you had to say about it didn’t matter. You were just a kid and a troublesome one at that. I can still feel the dismissive tone of various teachers when I spoke up, said what I knew to be right.
I wasn’t just angry. I didn’t have just some energy raging in me that needed a place to go. There was no intrinsic internal factor that made me angry. I responded to the world and I got angry, furious, to the point of suffocating.
I was right.
What I saw was unfair. And I couldn’t do anything about it, because I was a boy. And I was a problem. I was the problem.
We live in a world that individualizes feelings. Anger is a problem and peace is the solution. Mindfulness. Children are being taught to be mindful (I am looking at you, Bernie Siegel), to breathe, to forgive, to listen, to understand, to cooperate. But they are not being taught that their rage might be a totally reasonable response to really unfair situations.
I fear that the reason we don’t teach kids that they are right when they get angry is that we have long ago given up the fight ourselves. For whatever reason, our own upbringing, pressure of the circumstances, we most often don’t really engage the world and its many injustices. And that is a crying shame.
As you know, I came to the US as an adult. And I am scared about the way in which children are being raised here. When I taught college, I’d hear stories from my students about their highschool experiences. Horrifying stories of bullying, teacher intimidation and violence are common place. These were not exceptional stories, but experiences that all these students readily recognized from each other.
“Where were your parents?”
It was inconceivable to me that parents could stand for the abuses that their children suffered. But you know what. I am beginning to get it, and that scares me. Schools are a system, part of a much larger system, and it is hard to fight a system. Very hard. I was a student union organizer in highschool and college. Believe me, the difference we made was often negligible. And now we have jobs, responsibilities, homes, payments, schedules. If we have any opportunity left to really listen to our kids these days, we have lost the opportunity to fight on their behalf. Fighting the real fight. Fighting for fairness in their schools.
If your boy has too much aggression, where is yours?
Your boy takes it out on you. Be glad. Where else is he going to put? Other children? Buildings? The question is, where will you take it?
So yes, boys need to play outside, and use all that energy that is stored inside of them. But better playgrounds are hardly an answer to the real unfairness that they see.
Children are right.
And more than anything, let us show them that we know that they are right. What they see is wrong. We need to do something about it. We can’t always, but we can bloody well try.
For crying out loud.