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Author: Margaret Hammitt-McDonald
Location: Gresham, Oregon

diamond icon Margaret Hammitt-McDonald is a naturopathic physician who lives and practices natural medicine in Gresham, Oregon. She is also an avid hiker, backpacker, dragonboat paddler and tiller, and daily bicycle commuter, entertaining all and sundry with the sight of her bright red recumbent bicycle, Polyphemus. She also puts chaos theory to the test every week in her organic garden. She enjoys writing poetry, science fiction, and the occasional essay. She lives with her spouse of 13 years and nine rescued cats.

Children and Fire

The five-year-old girl I’m babysitting is threatening to set me on fire again. Of course, she is not literally attempting to ignite me. But she inevitably brings arson into whatever game we play. As we roll tiny cars across the carpet and over the furniture and our bodies, she declares that mine has just burst into flames and has gone careening off the mountain of my knee. As I push her on the swing outside, she pronounces that she has just aimed a fireball at me and I’m burning, despite my protests that my clothing is magically inflammable. A crayon becomes a wand for casting fire spells at me. If I tell her that I don’t really want to be lit on fire, she giggles, ignores me, and tells me that I just am on fire and I will have to accept it.

I have been delighted to watch this little girl’s physical, mental, emotional, and social abilities bloom. I have also become frightened at times by the increasing presence of violent imagery in her imaginary world. Since the human torch episode, her play has expanded to include weaponry. Though her parents do not allow her to play with toy guns, swords, or other parts of the (seemingly compulsory) armamentarium of childhood, or to watch violent children’s programming, she manages to transform sticks into firearms in an unsettling reversal of the swords-to-plowshares ideal.

“There’s a bad guy behind that tree,” she confides in me as we walk up a path together in a park I had always considered bucolic. “Bad guys kill people,” she informs me in the pedantic tones of a preschooler, and then she adds with the sometimes lapsed logic of that age group, “so I’m going to have to shoot him.” She raises her stick to her eye and sights along its lichened length. Then she makes a blowing-up sound and yowls in triumph, “Got him!” I itch to ask her whether shooting the bad guy wouldn’t make us into bad guys too, but I scold myself about inflicting my views on other people’s children and content myself with warning her not to put the rough end of the stick against her eye.

The collective wisdom of child development specialists (aided and abetted by those evolutionary biologists who reinforce the 19th-century notion of nature as bristling with claws and teeth and the inevitability of using them) is that children have aggressive tendencies. They need to express these impulses, albeit not in ways that leave permanent damage, hence the value (and even the necessity) of warlike play to let off the steam of violence in a safe setting bounded by rules of engagement. Even a natural childrearing magazine whose views I respect recently featured some articles suggesting that rather than forbidding violent play and its accessories, parents should allow children this form of self-expression. Self-expression, instinctive capacity for violence, means of learning to solve conflicts creatively—all of these concepts strive to reassure me that, as long as my charge does not actually attack a playmate with her pretend gun stick, I should leave her to her imaginary explosions.

Such behavior allows children to feel a sense of control and assertiveness in a world where they are mostly helpless, and these conventions of child development soothe adults. Even with her caring, respectful parents and nurturing home and school environments, this little girl certainly has experiences that frustrate her and are beyond her control. Perhaps she is using her episodes of shooting and igniting as ways to express her distress at these situations without actually harming another person.

But I must admit to misgivings whenever I watch her taking aim at a bush full of bad guys, or swashbuckling her way down a park trail with a rapier-like stick. Instead of acting like the overflow area of a dam that is meant to divert water and prevent the pressure of the main flow from bursting the barrier, perhaps these imaginary acts of violence reinforce the notion that hurting and killing are wrong when performed by the “enemy,” yet are justifiable, even imperative, when used against those “outlaws.” Instead of giving children a sense of self-confidence in a world full of larger people who control their time, activities, and even feelings, maybe all those toy guns (or sticks morphed into guns) simply reassure the child that when he or she is as big and old as the adults, he or she can dominate children and other vulnerable individuals in his or her turn.

I admire her parents’ respectful, non-censorious stance toward her attempts to comprehend the world through play. But sometimes I wonder if I should have been braver and asked her whether shooting the bad guy would solve the problem—or just make more bad guys. Such a question might not have induced her to put down her spiny stick of preschool power. These are weighty concepts even for adults. But it might have introduced to one bold but thoughtful child the prospect that conflicts could be mediated, rather than ending in somebody, or everybody, getting lit on fire.

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