Pushing the Monster Away….the inner life of boys



Read this first in a series of articles taken from my journals and theses, about troubling challenges boys face in this culture…
Excerpts from Protectors and Warriors/Lonergan/2003

{Fear is stronger than love…You wanna last? Be the first to blast.} –Tupac Shakur

Over a period of years in my kindergarten classroom,  I have observed a difference in the way young girls and young boys articulate their thoughts and questions about life, death, safety and danger. Girls tend to talk more, to engage smoothly in conversations around issues of, and feelings about death, and boys seem to favor active play with a danger or life/death theme.

Of course, both genders participate in both styles, but I have observed  a tendency for boys to be less adept in articulating their feelings and much more prone to acting out their concerns, and that tendency seems to be growing. Boys are engaging in more violent play and it is beginning to escalate quickly into real violence.  Children are getting hurt.

When this kind of play starts percolating in the context of the classroom, instead of banning it, I have found it wise to stay close to where these dramas are unfolding, in order to be able to calmly assist and support the development of a working vocabulary to be woven into the theme.  I learned that this could foster verbal communication within the group, and lessen  the potential for physical aggression becoming all too real.  The introduction and eventual implementation of a working vocabulary appears to decrease the evolution of fear and resultant aggressive and/or reactive  violent behavior. I observed that fear and danger ideas  introduced through media based  stories and toys seemed to stimulate and evoke reactive physical aggression markedly-especially with boys.

I had always thought that gender differences were primarily related to differences in physiological   development such as hormonal factors, and though I understood that there were differences in the way girls and boys are socialized, and that this could be a formidable factor, I began to suspect and later realized that I had only scratched the surface of an understanding of the role that socialization plays in the emotional development of boys and their concerns about death and danger…. and how strongly media influences  socialization.

I was able to take a close look at the quality of death and danger play during a Pokemon craze that held my kindergartners in strong grip. It was then that I learned and became quite concerned about the depth of the vulnerability of boys in these matters.

Observation and experience has taught me that young children engage in play to make sense of and build an understanding of the world around them. That year, when dramatic play at school centered around family issues, or conceptual issues such as shopping, post office, hospital etc., the boys in my class were able to communicate their ideas and structure their play in a way that used props as well as language. They interfaced with girls and included them in the fabric of their their play.

When engaged in Pokemon play, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion, argument, fear and aggressiveness. Play violence transformed to real violence quickly. I noticed that girls were not included, nor did they approach the boys to play.

At the same time,  I was being strongly lobbied by parents and the school administration to ban Pokemon in any form. The reasons to ban were centered around a concern about the trading activity associated with collecting the cards.

I preferred to gather more information and not make any sweeping authoritative decisions. The kindergarten people were not trading the cards. They seemed to be becoming the characters on the cards. I wanted to determine the nature of their play and to verify my impression that there was a difference in the intensity level and interest  between males and females. And then ask why.

I decided to collect information through an interview process. I got permission to do this from the school administration as well as from parents of the children in my class after explaining collateral academic and professional interests.

I told the children that I was interested in learning about Pokemon from them, and that I would be meeting with all people who were interested in helping me.

My interview questions were carefully designed to set a comfortable tone between the interviewer (myself) and the child, and to determine the degree of interest and knowledge each child had about Pokemon. I recorded the children’s responses verbatim with a small recorder. Out of a class of twenty children, seven boys and eight girls ( fifteen kindergarten aged children) agreed to be interviewed.

The interviews confirmed my initial impression that boys were far more involved and interested, but I also learned that girls avoided the boys purposely when there was a Pokemon game in progress. (One girl offered that the game was too rough, and that it was too scary). The play took on an obsessive and repetitive quality… a never ending story of  bloodshed with no conclusion.  Girls told me they wanted no part of it.

Additionally, the more I learned from the children about Pokemon, the more I understood that the boys’ interest and resultant play action spoke to an extreme vulnerability to the images and concepts contained in these seemingly harmless and diminutive creatures portrayed in cartoon style on the trading cards.

It is obvious to adults that the creatures are pretend, and that the violence is abstract. As a result  of this kind of portrayal, the adult can distance himself from the images that would most likely be found horrific if portrayed by flesh and blood characters. It became apparent why many adults were more concerned about the trading problems that the cards presented than with the cards themselves.The violent nature of the creatures is sweetened for the adult by the cartoon aspect of their representation.

However, young children are not abstract thinkers yet. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development outlines that abstract thinking develops during the “stage of formal operations” (Singer, Revenson, 1996, p.26) between the ages of eleven and sixteen. The images are real to kindergartners. Therefore the violence and death are real. (Even if children can verbalize to us that they know it’s fake).

There are just over two hundred separate Pokemon characters, the children taught me, each having a particular personality and certain kind of forceful machine-like power. This power enables each Pokemon to triumph in a duel with another, using fire or electricity or some other kind of deadly power to immobilize and absorb/kill the other.

It was when I sat across a table interviewing  a five year old boy named Max that the implications, (of how violent images paired with the way boys are socialized creates deep   psychological contradictions within boys),  struck me deeply…chillingly.

Max’s five year old soft, plump, innocent face became twisted into a scowl of bravura as he told me that he loved violence. He loved killing. He was not afraid to die or be killed, but he never would die or be killed because he would do the killing first. I was sitting quietly, listening, as he used his most evil voice to communicate this to me. As he spoke in this way, he did not look at me, but instead seemed to be focusing somewhere over my head. I remained silent, and as he finished his speech, his eyes rested on my face. His face softened as I gently asked if he really did like killing. He looked at me closely, and quite seriously told me, in his regular little boy voice, that he did not like it at all, but that he wanted to be safe and that it was also his job to keep other people safe.

Each interview with a boy revealed a strong desire to be strong. Every boy claimed to like violence and not to ever be afraid… but Max’s little boy face twisted into a threatening mask of aggression profoundly educated me about the impact that violent images have on very young males. I could only conclude that our boys are feeling societal and cultural pressure to fit roles that are being communicated society wide, and in a seriously focused way through adult created media images and toys.

I came to believe that the boys’ strong interest in the Pokemon creatures and their violent activities indicates how strongly they feel societal pressure to become protectors and warriors as they evolve into the world of men. I came to understand that the violent play was an attempt to practice these future responsibilities, and that claims of loving violence were fashioned to assist their attempt to push away, deny, their true and truly human feelings of fear and abhorrence of violence.  Perhaps they are preparing themselves to join the “culture of cruelty” (Kindlon, Thompson, 1999).

I also realized that I needed, we all need, to pay more attention to the details of play around media concepts, because I had been unaware of the radically deadly aspects of the “cute” characters.

I did not ban Pokemon cards. We in class continued to work as a group to solve the problems of some marked violent play eruptions associated with Pokemon play. After a period of ongoing and focused discussion, the children decided with a vote that they were tired of all the violence and so would bring popular small stuffed animals to play with at school, instead of packs of Pokemon cards (though people could still bring a card or two and were certainly free to think about Pokemon).

As we moved on and days and weeks went by, I began to reassure young boys in the throes of aggressive play that they did not have to pretend to like violence and that they could choose to play in ways that made their feelings comfortable. Sometimes they disregarded my comments, and sometimes there was visible relief and a shift in play themes. Sometimes these quiet comments opened up thoughtful, vocabulary rich conversations between children about feelings or questions they were having around danger, death and violence..

….to be continued





{  I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous } –The Monster in Frankenstein. (Shelley, 1818)





Valorizing Masculine Violence

The War Play Dilemma

Raising Cain

A Piaget Primer



About cthebean

Educator, musician, social justice activist...and now a blogger. Children deserve unflinching support from adults.....they deserve nothing less. All kids . Everybody's kids. Everywhere.
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4 Responses to Pushing the Monster Away….the inner life of boys

  1. seekraz says:

    I am the photographer who made the black and white image of the little boy (of which you have three together) and, while you did credit me with the photograph, you did not ask my permission to use it here on your blog. Please contact me to discuss this further.


    • cthebean says:

      Yes I did credit you. The photo is attached to a thesis piece that is (hopefully) educational in nature. I apologize for not initially seeking your permission. The plump innocence of the face in your photo reminded me very much of the boy I interviewed for my research at the time. I hope you will forgive my oversight.


  2. Pingback: Killing Bad Guys: Whose Job is it? |

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