On Playing War

A broken leg is no fun. However, since at SVS almost any new situation can become a window into what is going on in the minds of the kids, my broken leg led to many unexpected insights for me.

My mobility was seriously curtailed by my inability to walk. So when I came to school I would spend my time parked for hours on the sofa talking to people. My crutches became a great attraction. No matter what size he or she was, every student had to experiment with their usage. It was amazing to see how kids managed to learn to use them even when the crutches were twice as tall as them. One day, Peter, who is a well known lover of all living things, played with my crutches as if they were machine guns – making shooting sounds while pointing them at me. His face was calm and sweet and showed no sign of aggression, but still I asked him:

    "Peter, do you believe in war?"

    "Of course I don't believe in war!!!" he said, "why are you asking me when you know that I don't?"

    "Because you are shooting at me with this crutch." I answered.

    "What does that have to do with war? You adults don't understand that it is only a game and it doesn't mean anything," he said with exasperation as if he expected me to be more wise about these things.

Peter knows that I know about his reverence for life. At the school's camping trip to Nickerson State Park I witnessed the following scene.

It was sunset. Some kids and I were sitting on the beach playing in the sand and enjoying the soft evening wind and the lovely waning light. A fourteen year old boy was killing ants absent-mindedly. Peter watched for a few minutes and then told the boy to stop doing it because the ants were living beings and their lives should be respected. The boy said that they were only ants and that it was no big deal to kill them. Then Peter, who was nine or ten and much smaller than the other boy said rather sternly:

    "How would you like it if a giant came over and crushed you saying that you were only an ant?"

The boy shrugged and stopped bothering the ants. Peter evidently had convinced him.

As distasteful as it seems to many of us who abhor violence and see guns as an instrument of violence, children – our children – like to play with them. A gentle child like Peter has a lesson to teach us – namely, that we shouldn't interfere with these games because they aren't what they seem. 

Just a few days after this incident I was telling another adult about it in the presence of Ben who was six. He told me that he too loves to play with guns but that his mother doesn't like it and won't buy him one. I asked him why and he said:

    "Because she thinks it is violent."

    "Do you agree with her?" I asked.

    "No I don't! I am not violent at all and I still like to take a stick and play with it as a make believe gun. Other kids are violent sometimes even without a gun." 

I don't quite know why these gun games are so universally compelling for young boys. Maybe one day another child will show me and then I will understand.


Note: This piece was originally posted on November 5, 2018.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.