I feel like this needs some kind of content warning, but I’m not sure what. It’s about kids, and violence, and what it means when they play with power.
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”—G. K. Chesterton
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”—Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing Chesterton, in Coraline.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that happened several years ago. Silas was probably eight or nine. One afternoon, his teacher from forest school called me because another parent had complained about Silas. The parent, whose child was four, was concerned that Silas was a bad influence. I was shocked. “Are you sure they don’t mean Petra?” I asked.
His teacher confirmed that it was Silas. “He makes up these games where the kids are fighting imaginary enemies and monsters, so they’re always talking about weapons and killing, and then her little boy comes home and suddenly knows what a great sword is. Silas also made up a song called, ‘Babies with Chainsaws’ that is… very popular with the other kids. Have you heard it?”
Just at the point where I was about to pull my kids from Forest School and also society, the teacher said, “I want you to know that I don’t think this is problematic. Silas is never actually violent toward anybody. His games are always about building a team against an imaginary enemy. He listens to everyone’s ideas and helps them collaborate and solve problems. He has great leadership skills. If someone accidentally gets hurt, he’s the first one to stop the game and care for them. Playing with power is completely normal and developmentally appropriate for boys and girls. This other parent doesn’t know that yet—her kid who is at Forest School is still in preschool, and he doesn’t have any older siblings, just a baby at home. She hasn’t seen how completely normal violent play is, and how it’s unconnected from actual violence. Kids play with the idea of power. It’s normal, healthy, and developmentally appropriate. The other mom was shocked when her sweet little guy came home talking about murder instead of froggies and foxes. I don’t want you to worry that there’s anything wrong with Silas, or that he’s a bad person. But I am going to separate the age groups for most of the day, and I need you to ask Silas not to play with this particular other child. His parents have the right to say what they want their child to be exposed to, especially when he’s so young.”
I’ve been forever grateful for this kind and thoughtful framing. My kids play with violence a lot, and this teacher’s words have helped me accept it and not fuss too much over whether it means they’re going to grow up to knock over a 7-11 or something.
When I talked to Silas about it, he was sad and a little confused that he wasn’t in trouble, exactly, but also wasn’t allowed to play with this other child any more. “I don’t even like the ‘Babies with Chainsaws’ song, but everyone else always asks me to sing it.”
He sang me a little bit, and I understand why other parents might be distressed if their kids came home with this ditty. The chorus is:
Babies with chainsaws!
Killing the grown ups!
Destroying everything in their wake!
It has sort of a Saturnalia vibe, doesn’t it? An inversion of the natural order, empowering the least powerful…with chainsaws…I can kind of understand why the other kids dug it. It didn’t seem to me that they were about to go around handing chainsaws to literal infants. But what did it mean that this was an image Silas created?
I’ve been revisiting the ‘Babies with Chainsaws’ incident in my mind lately because Petra recently had a similar incident—interestingly, at around the same age, too. When I picked her up from pottery, she showed me a sculpture she had made, depicting a scene where a viper kills adults and babies and eats them. She made a second one, depicting the snake’s den, where wrapped bundles represented dead people the snake hadn’t gotten around to eating yet, much as a spider wraps and stores its prey. After we left, Ros, the pottery teacher, texted me to check in about it: “How do you feel about dark themes like that snake thing? She just sort of went there and I figured from what I know of you, I doubted you’d mind, but if there’s a line you don’t want crossed, let me know.”
I wrote back, “I direct Shakespearean tragedies, so I’m in no position to judge someone else’s artistic exploration of darkness…If she makes things that make *you* uncomfortable, you can tell her that.”
It does make me think, though. What does it mean, that kids naturally and nearly universally play about violence? What does it mean that I love directing plays that have serious violence in them—the worse, the better, as we say? What is the connection between pretend harm and real harm? I get real catharsis out of creating productions where the violence is visceral. When I directed Julius Caesar, the actors, after having bathed in Caesar’s blood, shook hands with the first rows of the audience. You are complicit, this gesture said, our violence is your violence.
In the theater, the line between pretend and real is crucial. The thing that ruins a play for me is when I suspect that the actor, rather than the character is in danger. I want real people to be safe, and pretend people to be in dire straits. This is why we use certified fight choreographers, why we practice everything slowly and then faster, why we do fight call every time. I will never put a violent person into a role where they have to play a violent character. The kids have their own version of this; Lynlee taught them to always use a safe word when they’re tussling, and literally the instant anyone says it, everything stops.
They’ve learned to navigate the boundary between real and pretend. A few years back, a child who has autism joined one of our homeschool play groups. Some, although not all, children who have autism have a difficult time understanding what is meant as pretend. This child was really bothered by a pillow fighting game. He felt like the people on the other “team” did not want to be his friends, and truly intended to harm him. Silas worked out some kind of plan to help this child feel safe; I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that it involved not playing the pillow fight game when that child came to play group, and making sure that they regularly checked in with him during other kinds of games, to verify that he understood that they were still pretending. Silas and Max both also got good at calling a stop when they could tell that things were getting to this kid’s threshold. It’s not fun if someone is really scared.
At the Ravenwood Faire, Petra and Lillian were fascinated with a group of barbarians known as “The Horde.” These folks dressed up in animal furs, adorned with bones. They carried big claymores and a taxidermied, costumed racoon. The kids were fascinated, but also a little repulsed until the “barbarians” told them about how the furs were sourced from animals that died of natural causes and how their tortoise-shell sporrans were filled with candy for sharing. Once they understood all of that, Petra and Lil leapt into the game whole-heartedly. Petra asked me if I thought we could join the horde next year.
Petra and Violet both also got really into throwing axes. Violet even has a target set up at her house. She’d never harm a person with them, but there is something about the satisfying thunk of metal lodging into wood, of flirting with danger…
Silas and I are still working our way through Sondheim. We just listened to Sweeney Todd. About halfway through, I could tell he was uncomfortable with the material. “We can stop this,” I said. “We don’t have to finish it if it’s freaking you out. It’s a very creepy show.”
“No,” he said. “I just need to know if it’s based on a true story or not.” Once we confirmed that it is completely fiction, he was all in, squealing with delight at the very punny song about what kinds of pies one can make with different kinds of people. “A Little Priest” is Sondheim’s “Babies with Chainsaws” moment.
Pretending about violence is, I think, really about pretending about power. How do we use power? How should we use power? How does it feel to be powerful? There’s also something primal about this kind of play. When the kids play at attacking monsters, all I can think of is every hero story. Jack going forth to kill giants. Hercules strangling snakes in his crib (a babies with chainsaws moment, if you will). Sun Wukong fighting back against an army of demons. The hero’s journey is about overcoming, about finding how it feels to use power. Sometimes, it’s about laying down your sword and shield, but only after you’ve felt their weight.
When Silas and Noah were small, they used to play at being super heroes. I was extremely uncomfortable with the constant talk of “beating bad guys.” And then one day, Silas told me that the way he and Noah defeated the bad guys was to make them be their friends. They made their own team more powerful by getting their enemies on their side.
I’m wondering about how we, as adults, can loosen our own ideas about real and pretend, and maybe release our imaginary children to embrace the strange, imaginative, powerful beings we are raising. What would it look like if we all calmed down a bit and admitted that war is terrible, but laser tag is incredibly fun? That we hope no harm will ever come to anyone, but true-crime podcasts are endlessly fascinating? That we also have a need to wrangle and tussle, and since we don’t have a fantasy realm in which to do it, we choose instead to throw some extra chum to the office rumor mill because our need for drama is insatiable?
When we ask our children to sublimate their fascination with power to meet our need to believe in them as idyllic, innocent creatures, do we disrupt some kind of crucial learning? Or is suppressing that kind of play part of how we prepare them to be productive members of society?