On Letting Four-Year-Olds Smoke, Drink, and Kill Each Other on the Playground
Today, I observed as two four year old girls sat with each other smoking cigarettes and drinking beers on my playground as they talked about going over to each other's houses to play.
Okay, well, the "cigarettes" were woodchips and the "beers" were six inch two-by-four segment blocks--but the play was real. When I noticed how they were holding the woodchips snugly between their index and middle fingers, a weird "spidey sense" went off in my brain. When one of them said, "I need more beer", I almost jumped into action to confront them, as if they were misbehaving. Mid-stride, though, I stopped.
Weeks before, I had found myself in a similar situation. A child had fashioned a gun out of a strangely-shaped piece of mulch and was running back and forth on the playground, shooting at a friend, who was pretending to be the Hulk, shouting "pew! pew! pew!" as he ducked and weaved. I had been trained in every childcare program I had worked in up until this point that I should chime in, confiscate the "weapon" and say, "we don't use guns in school."
One day, after opening my own program, a colleague brought it up to me that a pretty valid response to "we don't use guns in school" would be, "well, that's why they're pretend!"
That's such a four-year-old thing to say, right? When adults ask loaded questions or make loaded statements, we don't typically expect such literal answers or responses. Sort of how asking a child "why did you do that?" when they do something you don't like is setting everybody up for failure (or more frustration). But nonetheless, it's true, and it's an incredibly valid point for a four year old to make when questioning authority--it's almost like they're saying, "Dude, chill, I'm four years old."
I always say that early childhood professionals have to be skilled detectives. When a child is upset or disruptive, we have to remind ourselves, "something else is going on here, and it's my job to figure it out." But sometimes, we get so caught up in that that we end up trying to step into the roles of psychologists or psychiatrists, and that's just not right.
I watched these girls smoking and drinking--engaging in a reenactment of what most people consider debilitating vices--and I thought, "oh my god; their parents are teaching them that smoking and drinking is okay and if they think that smoking and drinking is normal they're going to idolize it and look at this they already idolize it because they're pretending to do it because they think it's cool and it's going to continue until they're old enough to acquire it on their own and they're going to develop horrible addictions and and and..." and I just want to slap myself for being in that place, because I know that's just not the case.
Just the same, when I would see kids playing rough and tumble, weapon-heavy games I'd be thinking to myself,"oh my god they're developing unhealthy relationships with weaponry and violence and they're going to grow up to be violent people if I don't intervene and tell them about how serious weapons are and how horrible of a teacher everyone is going to think I am that my students think it's okay to play violent games in my classroom and and and..." chill. It's pretend.
First, we should look at what pretend play has to offer for children. The American Psychological Association supports a research-based theory that pretend play might be a tool that helps children realize that thoughts, not reality, guide people's actions, utterances and emotions.
Next, if you're concerned about the subject matter, we should look at how to tell if a child's role-play scenario is actually innocent play or possibly a red flag / call to attention. There are times where children do act out very specific, very detailed, and very unsettling scenarios of which we should take note and be mindful. Just like all pretend play, teachers should ask what the children are doing, what the story is, and where they got the story. If something is unsettling to you, simply plopping in the question "is this something that happened to you?" or "is this something you do at home?". I like to run scenarios through the twelve indicators of play.
The 12 Indicators of Play
The following indicators are adapted from two books on play published by Tina Bruce (1991, 1996):
Are the children...
using first-hand experiences?
making up rules?
choosing to play?
rehearsing the future?
having a personal agenda?
being deeply involved?
trying out recent learning?
coordinating ideas, feelings and relationships for freeflow play?
Based on the list above, if what a child is doing meets these most of the criteria, it's simply play.
We know that children like to pretend to be in positions of power. Children emulate the people in their life who have control and power because they want to understand how those people think; what makes them tick, not because they want to emulate them or "follow in their footsteps". It's possible to argue that some children will choose to emulate if they find a measure of efficacy in the that power. Sadly, fear is an effective (albeit unhealthy) way to boost the efficacy of power.
When adults react negatively to hearing a bad word from a child, that word gains power. When adults react negatively to a child with a pretend "cigarette", "cigarettes" gain power. When adults react negatively toward pretend "guns", "guns" gain power. Eventually, in adolescence or adulthood, should that child ever be in a situation where they feel completely and utterly powerless, there will be that subconscious pull toward those "powerful" items. It can be argued then, that "zero tolerance policies" about this kind of play are actually counterproductive, just as "zero tolerance policies" toward bullying have proven to be counterproductive.
Additionally, if we stop play to step up on a soap box and lecture children about how smoking, drinking, and guns are bad, (assuming they respond at all to a lecture in the first place) not only are we giving these concepts an enticing illusion of power, we're setting that child up for a whole lot of confusion when they see their mother smoking, their grandparent drinking beer, or a family friend who enjoys hunting. You can severely damage a child's sense of safety, security, and their place in the world if you create an aura of opposition toward who their parents are or what their parents do. That's an unfair abuse of power.
This is why we show children what they can hit after they hit a friend. This is why we show children what they can rip when they rip someone's drawing. This is why we show children where they can play out these fantasies. We cannot shield a child from "negative influences" in other people's behavior. That's not our job at all. Our job is to be a positive influence, to exude an amount of power that is all at the same time, effective, just, kind, loving, unconditional, empathic, human, deep, talented, etc. When children have adults in their lives showing them what adulthood looks like, we can show them that it can look differently than the other influences in their life.
We know that children role play with subject matter that excites emotional responses. Heck, even reality television nannies know that children attach to what stimulates emotional responses from themselves and other humans. Children play drawing from subject matter and experiences that excite them, make them happy, curious, anxious, sad, angry, and afraid. I can think of multiple times as a child where I would role play about things that made me so afraid, I'd almost have panic attacks and have to think about puppies until the fear was pushed aside.
Speaking of puppies, have you ever watched puppies play with each other? It looks bad. It looks like a real dog fight sometimes. However, when puppies play, and they're biting and pawing at each other, they are biting softly. They are pawing more gently than they could be. When they bite a little too hard, their playmate yelps, and they make note of that boundary. Too rough. I am not going to imply that children are like dogs, but the nature of youth is extremely widespread amongst species. This is how children play, too. They play with no intent of harm. They will inevitably play too rough, and if the game is to continue, someone will have to adjust their exerted force. Therefore, there's not much that a caregiver has to do to box this play in.
There is very little need for teacher intervention in power play. When it comes to living out scenarios with alcohol or smoking, there is virtually no need for teacher intervention. We just observe, make a mental note of it in the event that patterns have to be assessed, and move on.
Eventually, there will be something way more interesting to try, some scenario way more fun to role play. Children role play to try on different personas, different lifestyles, different characteristics, different habits, different roles for so many different reasons, and very rarely are any of those reasons cause for concern.