"Bang, Bang, you're dead"

Massive change is required to make growing up a completely human experience for little boys. But there is much we can do on a daily basis to put attention to that humanness.

Much has been written about boys and violent play and what needs to be done. We can work to eliminate the gratuitous and increasingly realistic violence of the video screen and toy store from their lives. But is there anything in the world that will stop them from pointing a finger and saying, "Bang, bang, you're dead?" Until our whole way of socializing men, our whole assumption that war is the ultimate solution, are changed, little boys will feel compelled to play out those scenarios, over and over again.

Massive change is required to make growing up a completely human experience for little boys. But there is much we can do on a daily basis to put attention to that humanness.

I have a memory, still as fresh as the day it happened, of a little three or four year old boy in a play group pointing his finger at me. "Bang, bang, you're dead." Even with two boys of my own, I'd never yet found a response I was happy with. "I don't like to play those killing games," might be true, but left him resourceless in whatever it was he was trying to figure out. "I know you don't really want to kill me" might be reassuring on some level, but still not a response in kind. Entering into the play with a pro forma adult death would offer some satisfaction, in turning adult/child power dynamics upside down, but it doesn't make much of a game. After all, being killed is pretty final.

But he kept persisting and I kept experimenting, knowing that there was something he was looking for, some reason for playing out this fantasy. I began to notice that he looked scared--scared and lonely. Not surprising. You'd have to feel that way on some level on the point of eliminating another human being. It looked as if this little boy belonged in someone's arms.

I'd been experimenting with the pro forma death response, and trying out a loud dramatic ending, to add some substance to the game and make it a little more interesting for me. Now I added in physical contact. As I died, I fell on him (carefully, of course). Our bodies got all tangled up together, and, since I was dead I explained that I couldn't move, so he had to exert some effort to wiggle free. The change in tone was incredible. His face relaxed. His high-pitched, scared and forced-sounding laugh changed to irrepressible chuckles that I could share with him. He was delighted with the chance to show how strong he was in struggling free, and immediately ready to shoot so he could be fallen on again. We were in warm, lively contact, and I could see the fears rolling off with the laughter.

In a way, the scenario hadn't changed. He was still pointing a finger and saying, "Bang, bang, you're dead." I was still entering into his game, and ending up the "victim." But in a more significant way, the play had been completely transformed. It had started as a game of dominance, loneliness, and fear--a game that played out all that's inhuman about the way men are trained in our society. It had become a game of closeness, laughter and physical challenge--all parts of being human that we would wish for everyone.

What surprised me most, though, was not the extent of the transformation, but how easy it was. As soon as I noticed how scared and lonely he looked, it was easy to think of how to change the game. And as soon as he was offered an alternative, he was ready and eager to take it. Our little boys do not want this training when they are little. It does not come naturally. It does not fit well. If we (mostly mothers) can remember this, we have tremendous power to help them out.