The Violent World of Little Boys

The Boy Wonder prepares to duel his nemesis, Evil Mom Lady

JR had his friend, A., over to play this week when our preschool was closed for Passover. A.’s mother is a good friend of mine so she stayed for some caffeine and company. The moms were chatting in the kitchen when the boys appeared, in the midst of a game of “Hunter.” “You kill my mom and I’ll kill your mom,” JR ordered his friend, who nodded gravely in assent. A.’s mom and I looked at each other and laughed. Wasn’t there a movie about that?

What is up with little boys and violence? I am hardly the first to ask that question, but despite all the literature that has been written about the challenges of raising boys in the past few years, moms continue to be astonished by just how blood-thirsty their cuddly little boys are.

A.’s mom is an emergency room doctor who has seen first-hand all of the horrible things that can befall people, from gang violence to drug overdoses to car accidents. She was particularly dismayed by the effects of gun violence that she saw during her years working in major urban hospitals. Although she was not particularly political, the one student group she joined in medical school was dedicated to gun control. She swore when she had children, they would never have gun toys. Yet, now the mother of two sons, A.’s mom finds that she is unable to prevent her boys from fashioning their own guns out of any available toy. One day, she found herself consoling A., who was crying because his older brother had an assault rifle made out of Legos and he didn’t. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” soothed A.’s mom, “Mommy will make you an assault rifle.” My friend said at that moment, she had an out-of-body experience. It was as if part of her was floating above the scene, watching in disbelief as she consoled her three-year-old about his lack of an assault rifle. (Haven’t all of us, as moms, had this kind of experience?  Sometimes I can’t believe the stuff that comes out of my own mouth.) For moms like me and my friend, who abhor violence and guns and had all kinds of ideas about the peaceful yet masculine boys that we would raise, the preschooler’s love of violence and destruction can come as quite a shock.

Luckily for me (?), JR is more interested in hand-to-hand combat than guns. He is obsessed with superheros, like Spiderman and Batman, and they don’t carry guns. Of course, stories involving these superheros are still plenty violent. JR’s elaborate imaginary games all involve superheros fighting and killing imaginary bad guys. Having been roped into countless such games, I am now workshopping a character called “Evil Mom Lady” who is the arch-nemesis of all of JR’s superhero characters. Evil Mom Lady subverts the cliches of motherhood by fighting her enemies with poison Wet Wipes and the dreaded Tickle of Death. So, I guess, like my friend A.’s mom, I am playing along with JR’s penchant for violent rhetoric. But as any mom of a boy could tell you, resistance to this sort of play is futile. And maybe not even healthy. Child development experts say that forbidding this kind of violent imaginative play can have negative consequences, and that it is better for kids to be able to expresss their darker feelings in this relatively safe way.

I spent the first four years of JR’s life trying to teach him not to be physically aggressive to other kids. I have explained time and time again that we don’t hit or kick or push our friends; that we ask for a turn instead of grabbing the desired toy. And we never, ever chuck that toy at a friend’s head.  Now at four, JR is getting much better at controlling himself physically. But just as his actions have become less violent, his imagination has become more so. While JR’s two-year-old self was inclined to hit the kid who touched his favorite toy, his favorite toys at that time were trains. Now, he knows better than to hit other kids, but his favorite toys are the superhero figurines who shoot lasers and kill bad guys. It seems almost ironic, but is this possibly a healthy shift? Is exchanging aggressive actions for violent imaginary play a normal part of the progression from toddler to preschool and beyond? Do the good guy/bad guy games give JR an outlet for his aggressive impulses that is more socially acceptable that actually whaling on his buddies, which not only will have negative consequences for him with the adults in his life, but at this stage, will also likely result in negative consequences for him with his peers?

Maybe I should start reading some of those books on parenting boys.


  1. Lolavix says

    I should probably join you in those reads. Noah is very much into all Superheroes these days. This is about the age that Caroline loved her princesses, so it’s sort of interesting to see the similarities and obvious differences.

    • Emily says

      Yes, the book “Raising Cain” talks about how shocking it is for mothers in particular to see how violent boys imaginary play is. I think the shock is that much greater for mothers who had girls first!

  2. kim/hormone-colored days says

    This happened (happens) with my younger guy more so than my older one, so I was allowed to feel like the Good Mom who taught her child the Right Things until #2 came along. My younger one has been all about weapons since I can remember. He is the younger one, the little brother, who wouldn’t want to fantasize about being all-powerful?

    From where I sit now, I can see some advantages of letting boys (or girls if they are so prone) play out these fantasies, though let them use sticks for swords and fashion guns out of toast, so there’s a bit more imagination involved.

    • Emily says

      Yes, I think it is wise to say “no toy guns” but to permit kids to fashion guns out of Legos or what have you. I hear what you are saying about the younger one: we have neighbors who have three boys and the youngest one wore a superhero costume to preschool for a solid year. The mom, who is quite wise, said that this young guy needed to feel powerful.