The kind of books eight-year-old Hal’s prefers at the moment and the games he plays reflect a preoccupation with violence and war. Why are these themes so appealing? His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Recently I asked Hal what he thought was the best book he had ever read. Without hesitation he plumped for the book he is reading at the moment, Astrosaurs, Day of the Dino-Droids. I asked Hal what it was about the book that made him like it so much. The reply was fairly predictable – ‘it’s exciting, there’s mystery that makes you want to keep reading, there’s adventure’. Next up I asked Hal to nominate the worst book he had ever read. He went for something that he has just finished at school. He didn’t know the title but said that it was about a Pirate School. ‘All they ever do in this book,’ he complained, ‘is stay on the ship. The captain is a woman [there seemed to be an unvoiced implication here that pirates shouldn’t ever be female] and she is a grandma. Her son and baby grandson come onto the ship and the captain put the baby in a pirate pram which went overboard in a storm. The mum and dad jumped in and all the little children at pirate school help to save them. I don’t like it. It’s boring.’
The pirate book sounded like it had a fair bit of action in it and I asked Hal why he thought the book was dull if there was so much going on. He pondered this a while and then said words to the effect that to be really good a book needed situations where there were genuinely nasty baddies posing a genuinely nasty threat. In the Astrosaurs book there were some pterodactyls with machine guns that filled this bill admirably, whereas the Pirate book didn’t really have baddies and all the bad stuff came from acts of God like the storm that swept the pram into the sea. The absence of a decent threat posed by a baddy was in Hal’s eyes a crippling omission and, witheringly, he pronounced the Pirate tale ‘babyish’.
Hal’s fondness for a decent threat is entirely in keeping with the staples of his imaginary play as far as I can see. In his games he is always having wars and battles. Most of the time there is a fantasy machine gun in his hand. I’m tempted to say that violence is never far from his mind.
But does this mean that Hal is a thug in the making? Though I’m obviously biased, I am pretty sure the answer is no. To me there is a huge difference between this kind of play violence and what you get, for example, in physical bullying. Play violence seems to be some kind of outpouring of vigour, of energy and it is most definitely not an expression of the hatred and malice you find in bullying. How else can you explain the fact that while Hal and his friends spend hours killing one another in their imaginations, they are also extremely affectionate with one another?
Freud thought that humans have an innately destructive streak and he would, I imagine, have seen boys’ war games as an expression of this. But there is another way of looking at it. If you think of violence in kids’ books and in kids’ play as being about feeling powerful rather than being about being destructive, doesn’t it end up seeming really rather innocent?
Astrosaurs, Day of the Dino-Droids by Steve Cole is published by Red Fox.