Words like these fill the air in my house. My six-year old son, Adam, is by most standards a good-hearted, polite and gentle boy. Babysitters love him. Friends’ mothers invariably comment on what a pleasure he is to have around. Teachers have called him a role model for his classmates. He treats others with kindness and respect. It also happens that one of his favorite pastimes is to imagine that he is in a battle between the forces of good and evil. He is as likely to be the sinister supervillain with great powers of destruction as he is to be the benevolent superhero protecting the innocent. But I am a follower of the Buddha’s teaching on nonviolence and so I wrestle with how to best understand Adam’s penchant for war play while nourishing the seeds of harmlessness in him. Is Adam’s behavior a cause for real concern? I’ve wondered if, by giving him few restrictions in this area now, I will turn him into a blood-thirsty Rambo-type later on. Although I want my son to be peaceful, I wouldn’t want it at the expense of suppressing natural, healthy expression. The dilemma has forced me to reflect on the subject and get clearer about my feelings.
The simplest response to the situation, one which my wife, Jane, and I tried for a while, was to forbid any kinds of toy weapons and war play in our house. This proved to be unrealistic given the fascination with war Adam shares with his friends. I also found that I needed to acknowledge the joy I get from rough-housing with him in bed, a favorite activity we share. It seemed hypocritical to enjoy playful horsing around while condemning intergalactic battles between Adam and his friends. Jane and I do have limits that are clearly different from those set by the parents of some of Adam’s friends. Adam knows that most of the programs that his friends watch regularly don’t come on our TV set. Toys such as TS-7 (a plastic toy that has seven “deadly” weapons in one) likewise do not fit into our lifestyle. Nintendo battles may be fought at friends’ homes but not at ours. Adam has accepted these limits willingly, if not happily.
As I’ve tried to get clarity, it’s been helpful to look back on my own growing up. I was not a particularly violent child. On the contrary, when my mother would spray a can of Raid for the occasional kitchen cockroach in our New York City apartment, I would writhe on the floor in sympathetic suffering. This was partly in jest, but also quite a genuine and spontaneous attempt to process what was happening from the point of view of the bug. To this day, my bug “death dance” is a family joke. Also in my childhood I imagined each speckle in my bedroom carpet to be a sentient being, so that there was a vast civilization with which I shared my room. I would walk on tiptoes so as to cause minimal suffering to my fellow inhabitants.
However, as a youngster I too was enthralled by certain types of violence. Although I was never a G.I. Joe fan, I was obsessed with wrestling. I remember heroes such as Antonino Rocca and Haystacks Calhoun pummeling the bad guys on TV. Even though I was told that it was all staged, that mattered little. The sheer delight of seeing the good guy triumph decisively was all that counted. For me, perfecting a scissors hold or hammer lock was a noble aspiration. As an avid Superman fan, I felt that Lex Luthor deserved to face forceful and humiliating defeat. I can also recall the strange thrill I would experience whenever I saw the eerie mushroom cloud from nuclear test films. A surge of inexplicable power and delight would course through my body unmitigated by the realization of how terrifying this agent of mass destruction was. Even now, as an adult, my addiction for football is well-known among my friends. I’m not particularly proud of it, but can’t deny it either. I find myself relieved when an injured player on the ground is from the other team. This comes from a vipassana meditation teacher and former board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. How can I understand and acknowledge this paradox, particularly as it relates to instilling healthy values in my child?
It has often struck me that, in the wild, life devours life. It is in the nature of things. This is no different from the battle that rages in our bodies continuously between foreign invaders and white blood cells or other immune system army troops. In many religious traditions, the spiritual journey itself is often depicted as a battle between good and evil. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna admonishes Arjuna on the battlefield not to turn away from his dharma which is fulfilling his duties as a warrior. In the Judeo-Christian teachings, heroes such as David and Samson were glorified for killing their enemies. The Buddha himself came from the warrior caste. Many of the images from his teachings are about vanquishing evil. “One may conquer a million men in a single battle, but one who conquers oneself is the greatest and best conqueror.”
When I told a well-respected Theravadan monk that Adam has become a big fan of the action-oriented X-Men trading cards, the monk’s eyes lit up as he revealed that he had been an avid X-Men fan himself thirty years earlier. Perhaps through Adam’s fantasy battles he is exploring in a very healthy way the inner conflict between the dark and light forces that we all possess. An essential part of spiritual life is healing this split so that we don’t deny or repress a major part of who we are. Likewise, research has found that, by experiencing terror through such gruesome stories as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, children may be developing the inner strength needed to face real dangers in life.
It seems to me that a middle path concerning limits of aggressive play is the best strategy. Regarding boys, I wonder how much of the source of violent play is culturally created or just the normal dose of testosterone that made men the club-toting hunters and protectors of the family. Should that biological given be denied and suppressed? I don’t think so. Lots of boys Adam’s age are the picture of politeness around their pacifist families, but “hell-on-wheels” when they are away from home.
On the other hand, I don’t want to sanction unrestricted aggression. I feel the need to set certain guidelines for acceptable behavior This is especially true with television, which has a tremendous impact on today’s children. Kids’ TV is, to a large extent, controlled by toy companies with a strong agenda to feed and deepen addiction to play weapons of destruction.
The plastic hi-tech weapons designed to accompany TV shows have one and only one use: mass and violent destruction that simply involves pulling a trigger. There’s nowhere to go from there. When Adam constructs his own sword or dagger, he is more likely to work through complex feelings and understandings in imaginative play.
I am particularly concerned that, in witnessing hundreds of thousands of acts of violence on TV, children today are numbed to the realities of those acts. For Adam, violence and weapons are sources of fantasy entertainment; he does not live with the realities of war. Adam has told me, “I just love the action of a pretend fight, but in a real fight someone can get hurt.” So I have tried to talk with him about some of the real consequences of bombs and guns. When we read and discuss the newspaper stories about people living in Iraq or Bosnia, the conversation is sobering. I try not to tell him what’s right or wrong, but rather to invite him to share his own conclusions with me.
I have wanted to help Adam develop more inner confidence and strength through introducing him to a spiritually-oriented martial art. Through aikido, I am hoping that he can learn to deal skillfully with hostile energy, to find his center and balance in a frightening situation, and to be comfortable in his body. What better way to use a child’s natural energy and love of playing rough?
I am also vigilant of the company Adam keeps. As the Buddha said, keeping company with the unwise is a sure way to develop bad habits. Last year Adam wanted to play with a child in his class who was popular although quite aggressive and wild. After this boy “playfully” taunted others with a pocket knife at the school camp-out, we knew we didn’t want our son to be playing with him outside of school.
Jane and I recognize that, ultimately, our own practice is the key. If we are to comprehend Adam’s fascination with violence and nurture his nonviolent side, we must continue to develop and model these seeds of peace within ourselves. How we understand and integrate our own shadows is essential. I continue to explore why I love to watch football or to rough-house with Adam, and to look with compassion at my own aggressiveness. If I cannot accept my dark side, it will set off much reaction when I see aggression in others. As my own understanding matures, I hope to choose peace from a deep place of wisdom instead of a rigid set of rules. Likewise I would like, as much as possible, to avoid moralistic preaching in passing on my understanding to Adam. The fact that Jane and I are vegetarians probably speaks more to Adam about our value of nonharming than any lecture about fighting.