I have been thinking so much lately about how boys activity levels differ from girls, and how that affects my daily life. I don't understand how boys play and i really don't understand what they find appealing about playing the way they do. So in order to better understand i have been reading a book who's author encourages parents to allow aggressive play (a little beyond what i feel comfortable with). But it has got me thinking, what is so fascinating about playing wrestling, or shooting or capturing games? There are a few things that i have discovered about this "aggressive play". Boys need to explore their desire to play hard in safe environments. They want to feel powerful and they like to discover the "darker" parts of their imagination.
I was a very girly little girl. I wore pink all the time and everything had to be pretty. I liked watching Peter Pan and imagining i was Wendy being rescued. I wanted to be Cinderella, sweet and hopeful, and to be someone so special that i was noticed across a room. These are fantasies i can share with Clover. But Jul needs more. Jul needs to imagine that he is so powerful that he can concur evil. When he plays these games, he doesn't want to hurt, he want to feel his body move with strength and influence others through his action. Whether it be sword fights to to turn evil into good, or to wrestle until the enemy learns virtue, his desire is to influence his imaginary foe. If he can submit the evil and cruel "Daddy Monster" in his play, he can do it in real life. I thought it was about Jul being violent, but what it is is so much more innocent: its not about being powerful, but about good winning over evil. And only good can win.
On the other hand, he loves being the dark side as well, and being taught that his evil ways are wrong! He will quite happily be the one who gets shot, or fall to the ground when the sword pierces him. Playing the bad guy gives Jul and outlet to try different ways to be bad in a safe way. He can be rude or mean in a way that he wouldn't normally be. Exploring appropriate and inappropriate behaviours knowing that he wouldn't be allowed to act like a 'bad guy' any other time. Showing that there is a difference in his mind how good people and bad people behave in his mind. I enjoy seeing the snarls that he gets when he is bad.
Another thing that i have had to adapt is my idea of "rough housing". In my mind wrestling is violent and they are fighting. Reality is very different for Jul though. He knows that hitting isn't ok, that throwing people to the ground is unacceptable behaviour. But when he is playing it is just that: playing. Only i cant tell. He isn't killing a person, he's using his imagination. I now ask (often) 'are you guys having fun?' just so i know if they are really playing or not. And sometimes i suggest ways to redirect the playing if i think it might become frustrating for either party. Other times i just sit and watch (from a distance) as they resolve problems that they are having because misunderstandings on who's good or evil can arise quickly. But they are just as fast to sort it out and resume the fight.
Imaginative play is so important for children not just because it's creative, but because they become the other person. I cannot imagine trying to convince a little girl that she isn't a princess. In her imagination she is and, one day when she grows up she will be a princess for real. How, then, is it different for little boys? How frustrated a little girl would be if she was constantly told that playing princess isn't appropriate. Or playing 'mommy and daddy'. Why, then, cant children who what to play war, play war? They know that they aren't killing anyone. But they believe that they are going to grow up to be heroes and warriors, changing the evil in the world to good. Who am i to burst their bubbles, if you want to be a princess, then you will be a princess. Likewise with a hero/warrior.
I thought for a long time that i was good at not being a 'helicopter' parent. But i learned that i hover when i am uncomfortable with things. My new friend taught me that because of her cultural differences. When our boys would get together to play, i would watch them and be tense, worrying that Jul might hurt his friend. She would tell me to relax and let them be boys, and when things would happen, she would tell them to work it out. (There hasn't been any blood yet.) This gives them an opportunity to discover boundaries and diplomacy. Jul's friend would come to me and say "Jul did (put whatever it is he is tattling about here)" and i would try to sort it out. Then i watched his mom, and she would say "its ok, you go play". It was so liberating! She could decipher the difference between a complaint and whining, and when to intervene and when she's interfering.
I can't claim to know how all boys play, but I can safely say that I am beginning to understand that i don't have to. I just have to allow my boys to be themselves. Whatever that may mean.