A decade or so ago, Jane Katch wrote a book reflecting on her difficulties with her class’s use of violence in their fantasy play. I like the honesty of her writing and how she acknowledges the personal reasons behind so many of her decisions.
I also found interesting her suggestion (originally her teacher, Bruno Bettelheim’s) that in order to respond to violence and support children with violent play and imagery, we must first look at our own feelings toward violence and understand them. Not as easy as it sounds, as Katch points out throughout the book.
The book is introduced by Vivian Gussin Paley, who writes that “Under Deadman’s Skin is a remarkable book about the role of fantasy play in our troubled times, but, reading between the lines, we see that it is really about the art of teaching and learning in a democratic classroom.” (p.xi) She poses the questions: “how does one empathize with games called Suicide and conversations about cut-up body parts on the way to a math lesson? Does this dark classroom theater portend misshapen psyches to come or, rather, is it the children’s ability to make play out of images they should never have been allowed to see – and learn to talk about them – that protects them from despair?” (p.x)
While Katch, Gussin Paley explains, “is tempted to tell the children not to think about it or at least not to say it [‘Suicide’, the game that sparks this book], conscience and curiosity propel her in another direction. After several decades of watching young boys play out their ‘I’m more powerful and dangerous than you’ fantasies, she wonders if the male half of her class has all but eliminated the ‘hero’ and substituted a faceless, tasteless, gory version that the children cannot seem to erase from their collective thoughts. / This being the case, decides Ms. Katch, let the children join [-p.x] her in studying a phenomenon that holds them hostage. Instead of eliminating the script, make it a focus of classroom discourse: How are we to gain control over these worrisome yet tantalizing fantasies?” (Gussin Paley, p.x Introduction pp.ix-xi)
Some honest ‘teacher’ comments that caught my eye
“The five- and six-year-olds in my class have invented a new game called Suicide. they play it in the room when they’ve finished their work, and outdoors at recess. I have never seen a game I hate so much in which all the children involved are so happy. It follows our three classroom rules for violence in play, rules the children and I have made and refined together, and to which they carefully adhere…. But the suicide game does get very noisy, so when I look for an excuse to stop it, that is the only one I can find. ‘This game is too loud!’ I tell the four players one morning.” (p.1) The children change their game slightly (by taking it into outer space), but start playing more quietly; “I know they haven’t really changed the game as they promised. They’ve just moved into outer space, further away from critical teachers. But they are, for the moment, quiet, and the children in my reading group are doing well on their own, so I continue to eavesdrop, hoping no parents enter the room. I don’t think they’d approve of the suicide game.” (p.2)
“Seth… scribbles on a piece of paper and turns back to Gregory. ‘Now this note says if you don’t commit suicide, you’ll be dead for a whole year!’ He folds the paper and hands it over. ‘Follow me or I’ll shoot you!’
Why do Gregory and Nina, usually such imaginative, constructive leaders in the class, want to be helpless victims in the grip of this alien sadistic force? Is the thrill of Seth’s latest violent fantasy too exciting to resist? I must stop this game. I can, at least, banish it to the playground, where I don’t have to hear it or give it my seal of approval by allowing it.” (p.3)
Katch describes encounters with parents and colleagues – and her difficulties with each conversation and/or confrontation over the issue. The familiarity of the process she goes through is interesting (and reassuring in some way).
“I wouldn’t mind the violence so much if it had a moral purpose.” (p.72) [This comment on its own is fascinating!]
“Could my fear of my own anger be connected to my antipathy toward images of violence?” (p.73)
Thoughts on violent play
Katch learned under and worked with Bruno Bettelheim (as a councelor in his Orthogenic School in Chicago) and refers to this education throughout the book. One point he had made to her was: “If you vant to understand the murderous fantasies of these difficult children, first you must be villing to look at your own!” (quoted, p.7)
Katch notes that “In talking about pretend shooting play, [Bruno] Bettelheim writes, ‘Some parents even fear that such play may make a future killer of the child who thoroughly enjoys it, but the pitfalls of such thinking are many and serious.
First, as playing with blocks does not indicate that a child will grow up to be an architect… so playing with toy guns tells nothing about what a child will do and be later in life. Second, one may reasonably expect that if through gun play a child feels that he can protect himself, and if he discharges many of his aggressive tendencies, then fewer of these will accumulate and require dangerous ways of discharge in later life…. Third, and by far the most important attitude, is parental fear that the child may become a violent person. This thought is far more damaging to the child’s emotional well-being and his sense of self-worth than any play with guns can possibly be. If they seem to hold such a low opinion of him, it is apt to make him very angry at them and the world, and this increases his propensity to act out his anger… once he has outgrown parental control.'” (Katch quoting Bettelheim, p.64) [This Bettelheim quote apparently taken from p.35 of an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine, March 1987.]
“Parents who wish to deny that their child has murderous wishes and wants to tear things and even people into pieces believe that their child must be prevented from engaging in such thoughts (as if this were possible). By denying access to stories which implicitly tell the child that others have the same fantasies, he is left to feel that he is the only one who imagines such things. This makes his fantasies really scary. On the other hand, learning that others have the same or similar fantasies makes us feel that we are a part of humanity, and allays our fears that having such destructive ideas has put us beyond the common pale.” (Bettelheim, quoted p.75) [quote taken from p.122 The Uses of Enchantment]
“I still wish I could turn back the clock,” Katch tells her principal (when asked what she has learned about her students’ interest in violence), “and insist the children be protected from violence until they are old enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality, even when they are immersed in their play. We flood our children with violent images, and then we do not want them to express their reactions through play, as children will do when they need to deal with experiences that are important to them. Imagine what would happen if you told the teachers that talking or even thinking about the Littleton shootings would turn us into aggressive and potentially dangerous adults! At the same time, the children need to learn to articulate their feelings about their play, to listen to each other and to make rules that will help them treat each other with empathy and respect.” (p.125)
“At staff meeting last week,” Katch writes (in an imaginary conversation with Bettelheim), “with all the parental concern about violence, several teachers wanted to prohibit children from bringing any toys to school except stuffed animals and dolls. They were offended by Travis’s camouflage pants, army green binoculars, and walkie-talkie at recess and they believed that such toys distracted the children from learning in the classroom. I argued that this would be unfair. A girl could spank her doll to her hear’s content – why couldn’t Travis communicate through a walkie-talkie? Then the teachers considered banning [-p.129] all toys from home. This ban, at least, would apply the new rule equally to both boys and girls. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I had not given one of my most important arguments: that through our discussions about their toys, the children develop their ability to express their feelings and to realize that other people have interesting ideas that are different from their own.’ ‘If this is so important, vhy did you forget it?’ Dr. B. looks serious now, his eyebrows knit together in a frown, watching as I search my soul. ‘There’s a part of me that agrees that it would be so much easier to have no toys from home,’ I confess. ‘It takes time and energy to deal with each incident, each cry of ‘unfair’ when a child doesn’t share or when someone feels left out. The quick solution is so attractive: No pretend shooting! No Popsicle stick weapons! No talk of suicide! I have to remind myself that each time I insisted that the children solve a problem concerning exclusion or violent play they came up with a solution….” (pp.128-129)
Concluding her book, Katch comments on “an issue I find harder to think clearly about: the connection between violence and exclusion. When I first started audiotaping the children’s play and talk, I cut out every discussion about exclusion. I thought it did not relate to my subject of violence. But when exclusion kept coming up, I decided to listen to those discussions, and I found that exclusion and violence seemed to be inextricably intertwined. Excluding someone from the group seemed to justify violence, both by the excluded child and by those who exclude him, just as when Seth and Patrick called Joel a baby before knocking him down and when Caleb called Nate a girl before punching him. On the other hand, as Jason described and as we learned from the killers at Columbine, the excluded child can feel justified in using violence to hurt those who exclude him. I wish I could just tell the children to be more inclusive, but it’s never that easy.” (p.130)
Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Jane Katch (c2001) Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the meaning of children’s violent play. Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts