Understanding the Preschool Soldier - Papers & Essays



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Understanding the Preschool Soldier


Worldwide media reports are causing more boys and girls to experience fears of terrorism. One of the powerful ways that young children in all countries rely on to reduce their fears and worries is imaginative play. However, few parents are aware of the stages of mental development that govern how children interpret the meaning of violence and death. Consequently, the motives of the preschool soldier are generally misunderstood.


Boys and girls are naturally curious about the messages that they see and hear on television, especially stories that are related to the global war on terror. Therefore, many ask their mothers and fathers these kinds of questions: Who will take care of the children who have parents in the war? Does my brother or father have to be a soldier? Should we go on the train if that is where terrorists attack? The latter question could cause Japanese parents to remember a particular terrorist incident where the nerve agent, Sarin gas, was released in a Tokyo subway, resulting in 12 deaths and over 5,000 injuries. Ingesting just one milligram of Sarin can be fatal.

No parent can fully answer all of their child's questions about possible dangers but the adults try to increase awareness, encourage caution, and provide assurances. To support these goals, this presentation explains how children define the meaning of death, why they regard conflict play as appealing, and ways parents can model good behavior. Everyone benefits when parents accurately interpret the motives of their children and allow preschoolers to choose the toys and play themes to guide pretending with adults.

Differences Between Real and Pretend War

Parents wonder how observing scenes of warfare on television may influence their child. Some are uncertain over whether to allow play with toy weapons or military games. Barbara is a 35-year-old mother who has two preschoolers. Even before fear of terrorism became a global concern, Barbara and her husband believed that violent toys can motivate lawlessness. "We knew that our decision to prevent the boys from having weapon toys would be difficult for them to understand. It would be easy for us to conform to majority opinion but that would mean lowering our standards of integrity."

Denise is another mother that expressed concern when her 10 year old son, Ben, was given a laser tag set for his birthday. This game requires that all players have a gun that shoots an infrared light beam. The gun is aimed at a red "star sensor" target worn by the opponents. When a sensor is hit, it lights up and plays an electronic series of sounds. After six hits, the sensor signals an end to the game. The light emitted is not a real laser beam but instead a safe infrared light enabling children to play in the dark. Ben says that he likes it mostly because for the first time he can play tag and know for sure if someone has been hit. Denise feels there is more to the game than tag causing the mock killing of another person to be seen as an achievement. She has similar complaints about video war games that Ben wants, especially one that features a shootout with terrorists who try to blow up the airport.

During our discussions with parents we hear many who discourage children from war play. They suppose that this focus for imagination supports aggression, impulsive behavior, and teaches children to discount the value of human life. These parents worry that children may come to view war as enjoyable and killing an enemy as justifiable so long as it is being done for patriotic reasons. A frequent observation is that we have too much crime on television and in the community without observing it during child play as well.

Child Understanding of Death

Parents opposed to war play by children state that their goal is to discourage the use of weapons as a method to resolve disagreements. They believe that gunplay during childhood can result in a desire for immediate revenge instead of the fair-trial, innocent-until-proven-guilty philosophy expected by adults. Jane, the mother of a four-year-old, expressed this perspective. After overhearing my child tell his cowboy companions that he was going to shoot and kill them, I felt compelled to say," Donnie, you don't really mean that." Then I reconsidered and thought that maybe I should sit Donnie down and explain that when you kill someone they are dead, and they will never breathe again. Then I wondered, if I don't let Donnie play with guns like the other kids, it might give him the feeling that we feel he is so violent he requires different toys from everyone else. Finally, not knowing what to do or say, I ignored him and went on feeling guilty.

Jane's dilemma is shared by many parents. Hopefully, we can reduce the problem by more closely examining what young children really mean when they talk about killing and dying. Preschoolers see death as a reversible process. Whether they play hide-and-go-seek or cowboys and Indians, the dead people are expected to recover quickly and then live again. The conventional television cartoon reinforces this notion when a rabbit falls off a high cliff, hits the ground, and, then, in keeping with a child's reversible concept of death, is brought back to life. The same thing happens when children watch an actor die on some television program and later miraculously appear as a talk show guest. Consider this conversation of a father and preschooler:

Son: Dad, I'm going to dress up like an army man.
Dad: You look like a soldier. I was a soldier once.
Son: Why?
Dad: The country needed me. We were having a war.
Son: Dad, did you die?
Dad: No, I was lucky.

The realization that death is permanent takes place in stages. Between age 3 and 5, there is a considerable curiosity and questioning about death. Unfortunately, many adults suppress this curiosity and believe that it is impolite for a child to ask an elderly neighbor when she is going to die. In contrast, several generations ago, it was common for children to witness deathbed events, usually the death of their grandparent. Yet, the preschooler believes that death is not final; it is like being less alive; just as sleeping people can wake up and people on a trip can return, so too a dead person can come back to life. The coffin limits movement, but children suppose that dead people must continue to eat and breathe. People buried in the cemetery supposedly know what is happening on earth, they are sad for themselves and feel it when someone thinks about them. Dying disturbs preschoolers because life in the grave is seen as boring and unpleasant. However, most of all, it bothers the children because death separates people from one another. And, at this developmental stage, a child's greatest fear is separation from parents.

Preschoolers are self-centered and preoccupied by present events. Therefore, they are unable to recognize how a death in the family might impose future demands on them including permanent loss of someone's presence, their comfort, love, encouragement, and perhaps financial support. Because these understandings do not emerge until a later age, little children may not express grief immediately, or even cry like their adult relatives and friends. In fact, it is common for adults to mistakenly conclude that a child is coping well with the loss of a loved one. But, keep in mind that little children cannot comprehend the situation and can only tolerate short periods of sadness. Since they are easily distracted, children may seem to be finished with grief and mourning earlier than is actually the case.

Even the very young recognize words cannot help someone in grief and that what matters most is just being there to console them. To illustrate, four-year old Amanda did not come in from the backyard when she was called by her mother. Later, when asked to explain why she was late, Amanda replied, "I was helping Judy." Mother wanted more information. "What were you doing?" Amanda said, "Well, her doll's head got crushed." Mother wondered aloud, "How could you help to fix that?" Amanda had a good answer. She said, "I was helping her cry."

Children between 5 and 9 years of age typically personify death, seeing it as an angelic character that makes rounds during the night to begin life for some individuals and end it for others. The big shift in the child's thinking from the first stage to this one is that death is recognized as possibly being final. It is no longer seen as just a reduced form of life. This view of death emerges with increasing personal experiences suggesting certain separations are permanent. When the pet goldfish dies, mother buys a new one because, she says, the other one is gone forever. Claude Cattaert's (1963) Where do Goldfish Go? illustrates how children become upset by adults whose insensitive reaction to death of animals is that pets can be replaced. When Valerie's goldfish unexpectedly dies, no one is bothered except Valerie; yet the family seems overcome with sorrow when grandfather dies, even though his death had been anticipated for years.

It is not just families that should be aware and sensitive to children's feelings about death. In conversations with students training to be kindergarten and first-grade teachers we asked, What would you do if some morning when you arrived at school, you discover that the class goldfish had died? The range of responses included these comments: I would declare a day of mourning; conduct a burial; discuss the virtues of the deceased; consider the after-life of fish; invite testimonials; talk about human death and its meaning; or, flush the fish and say, "Take out your books, it's time for reading."

Parents recognize that they cannot guarantee a long life for pets but are hopeful that they can reduce the amount of exposure their children have to death on television. The outcome of this decision to protect youngsters is usually a refusal to let them watch detective and police programs, censorship of aggressive cartoons, and ambivalence about seeing local news that often portrays criminal behavior that has led to violence or death.

The typical 5- to 9-year-old child believes that the cause of death is external, and they personify death as being an outside agent. Since they conceive of death as a person, children feel it is possible to avoid death if protective measures are taken. Thus, one child may claim his grandfather won't die, because the family takes good care of him. Children of single parents admit they worry most about "What will happen to me if my mother dies?" It is reassuring for them to know that plans have been made so they will be taken care of in the event of an unexpected death.

Finally, around age 9 or 10, children realize that death is not only final but also inevitable. It will happen to them too, no matter how clever they are or how well they take care of themselves. Instead of imagining death as controlled by an external agent, they now recognize that internal, biological forces are involved. As children begin to accept the universality and certainty of death, certain changes can be observed. They begin to show concern about the meaning of life, their purposes for being on earth, and ways to achieve them. This means that values become much more important in governing their behavior.

Children in many parts of the world are growing up in the midst of death and the threat of destruction. They observe death on television with such regularity that war has become a common fear. Children look to adults for answers about death, but our attitude is our most important response. Certainly you will want to explain personal beliefs about what happens after death. However, keep in mind that children love mystery and adopt our sense of wonder and uncertainty if we are willing to express it.

Child Perceptions of Toys

There are various toys that parents do not approve for child play. Some dislike military toys because they reflect violence. Others oppose toys that involve taking risks. Crash cars that fall apart on impact and are quickly reconstructed are thought to sanction a disregard for safety, and martial arts dolls depend on irrational ways to handle conflict. Parents that express these complaints are ambivalent because they want to buy toys that reflect their own values and also want children to have decision making opportunities to develop their own value system. And where is it more appropriate for children to make decisions than during play?

Adults can justify making some decisions for children such as whether they will attend school, if they will go to a doctor, and when it is time for bed. Parents also decide how much money to spend on entertainment and toys for children. On the other hand, to claim that children need to acquire coherent values but deny them any practice in making personal choices is unreasonable. Consequently, parents are concerned about the relative priority they should give to feelings of their children when buying toys for them.

Instead of declaring values by choosing children's toys or censoring the content of their fantasy, parents should try to enact their values when participating in pretend play. The imposition of values always has less influence than does the illustration of values. If you believe that war is glorified while the darker side of battle like injuries and death are ignored, give attention to these consequences and the peacemaker role during your play.

Most people share the hope that international disarmament will eliminate a threat of nuclear war. However, while peace means the end of war, it does not mean the end to differences of opinion. Because there is a critical distinction between fantasy wars played by children and bloody wars conducted by adults, it is a serious error to misread motives of the preschool soldier. Grownups who suppose that preschoolers playing soldiers have the same intentions as men and women they imitate, misinterpret the motives of children and their level of understanding regarding violence and death. Parents should strive to see favorable possibilities in their children's choice of playthings.

Conflict toys and games can meet some needs of boys and girls. This kind of play offers relief from feelings of powerlessness and the dependence that account for much of a child's experience. There is nothing strange about the desire to control others, particularly those who daily exercise power over you. Children are delighted whenever they can assert themselves during play and make Daddy run away or fall down because he has been shot. Then too, conflict playthings offer a safe setting in which to express disapproved feelings such as anger, fear, frustration and jealousy. In many households these feelings are met by punishment, ridicule, or shame. Danger play also provides an opportunity to repeatedly confront fearful issues, like war, death, and injury. Although these topics are of universal concern to children, many adults avoid talking about them and, in the process, increase the anxiety of children.

Taking risks requires practice in a low-cost setting. During danger play children can afford to take chances, to see what it is like to rebel, to be a bad guy, or an outcast. These are risks they dare not take in daily life. In this connection, it is worth noting that war play is the only context where some children can conduct conflict without guilt. Even though parents should model how disputes should be settled in constructive ways, some boys and girls learn instead to feel guilty whenever they oppose an authority figure. For many children, fighting off the mutual 'enemy' fosters competition needs. War play also allows children to experience leadership, to take responsibility and to command others as well as become heroes like their favorite television characters. Finally, conflict toys and games offer fun and enjoyment.

Influence of Toys and Players

Safety should always be a consideration when buying toys for children. However, instead of overemphasizing effect of toys, it is important to understand that the adults who play with children can also have a significant influence. Otherwise, the value of playthings is exaggerated while the impact of players is underestimated. Relatives cannot fulfill their guidance role merely by purchasing the right kind of toys or forbidding the wrong ones.

Adults complain that children are inclined to believe what they see advertised on television. Is the adult condition better if we believe all that we read on toy packaging? For example, exposure to so-called educational or creative toys may not provide support for imaginative behavior. Creativity does not reside in certain toys because of their design, but mostly in the interaction between the persons that play with the toys. Research on creative behavior and modeling shows that parents should play with their children; they should get involved instead of limiting themselves to judging merits of playthings. The assumption that certain toys have a disabling effect on the personality of children is unwarranted but the view that adults can have a favorable influence on children through play has been demonstrated.

Parents should not censor the content of children's fantasy play, except in cases of bodily danger. Once the direction of pretending is taken over by adults, boys and girls are no longer decision makers. And, in fantasy play, making choices is vital for participation. Adults can share in determining the themes if they are willing to accept the role of a play partner. It is unreasonable to interpret the content of children's play as representing adult motives. When an actor on stage portrays the role of a murderer in a film or a stage play, the audience may say that the performance was convincing and successful. Yet, when a child chooses to play the same violent role, reasons for deciding to become that character may get greater attention than a child's performance. Such pessimistic interpretations of child play lead to unfair attribution of motives that children do not possess. The motives of children who kill each other temporarily using toy weapons are unrelated to motivation for violent activity in adult life.

Parents want children to learn nonviolent methods to resolve disputes. The way to attain this goal is by a long-term emphasis on conflict resolution. It is also important that mothers and fathers accept normal development stages through which all children grow in understanding the finality of death. When child war play is misinterpreted as a personality fault or a prelude to violent activity in adult life, motives of the young are unfairly judged. Pretending helps many children to confront their common fears of war, death and injury and gives them a vicarious sense of power or control over such events. The common strategy of trying to protect children from fear of real events like war by not talking about the topic increases anxiety. At every age, we are most anxious about what seems uncertain. Therefore, avoid censoring the focus children choose for pretending and instead enact your values in parent-child play including peaceful ways to solve disputes.


Parents should accept the stages of normal mental development through which all children grow in understanding the finality of death. When the war play of young children is misinterpreted as an inclination to rely on violence as a method of solving problems, the motives of boys and girls are judged unfairly. Social prejudice is shown by misreading the motives of someone else, to suppose they have bad intentions when this is not the case. The fact is pretending has been found to help children confront their common fears about war, death, and injury.

Everyone possesses some degree of creative ability. Much of what children learn before they begin school is from guessing, questioning, searching, manipulating, and play. These activities define the creative thinking process. Since creative thinking is appealing to most children, parents should make an effort to preserve this valuable asset needed to support adjustment and success throughout life.