I was a guest at a birthday party yesterday for a little girl who is just turning three years old. As usual, I was interested in observing the children at play.
I watched as two little girls chose stuffed animals to be their babies, placed them in toy strollers, and began to stroll their “babies” around, while saying such things as ,”Let’s take them to the park.”
Then a little boy approached with a toy alligator,and wordlessly started to advance with the stuffed toy towards the girls and their baby dolls. He made the jaws of the alligator open and close as if the alligator was trying to snatch the baby animals from their strollers.
The girls began to giggle and to run away while pushing their strollers and, saying, “Oh no Mr. Alligator, you can’t catch us.” Pretty harmless and typical three year old play. All of the children seemed to be enjoying themselves, as evidenced by the peals of laughter emanating from all of them.
Then one of the little girls suddenly cried, “That alligator is trying to kill our babies. Come on , let’s run. We can’t let him kill us. We have to get away, or kill him first.”
I am no Pollyanna,but in that moment, I was shocked. A three year old talking about killing and being killed ?
I watched as S. (yes ,this is another story that involves my beloved girl) paused, and looked at her little friend. A brief look of confusion passed over her face , before she decided to go along and parrot the words of the first child. “Yes, let’s run and hide, he’s trying to kill our babies.”
I know for a fact S. has never heard the word “kill” before. I know she has no idea what that word means. I know that while she enjoys playing chasing and running games with other children, that up until the moment the word “kill” was introduced into the play, it was all fun and games, and there was nothing to fear and no real enemy.
A tiny loss of innocence occurred in that moment for S., and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
I bet some of you think I’m over reacting. But seriously, stop and think about it. Is it really necessary for a three year old child to even have that particular word as a part of her vocabulary or her consciousness ? Call me wrong, (it won’t be the first time someone has), but it is disturbing to think about three year old children running around play acting killing scenes.
What happened next you may ask ? I decided I needed to intervene and enter the play, which is something I rarely do. I followed the girls, who had sequestered themselves in the bathroom with the door closed, while the little boy with the alligator stood outside the door knocking and asking the girls to let him in.
“No, you are trying to kill us and our babies,” they cried. I opened the door while saying, “Oh no, I think this alligator just wants to play with you and your babies, isn’t that right, Mr. Alligator ?”
Mr Alligator nodded vigorously. “Mr Alligator, you mustn’t be naughty and try to nip at the girls and their babies then, or they might be afraid. You DO have very big teeth you know !”
Now all three of the children were giggling , and S. asked Mr. Alligator if he would like to play with them , and when Mr. Alligator nodded, the whole group ran off together,and Mr. Alligator was trying to kiss the babies , because S. reminded him that he promised to be nice and not bite the babies.
The play dissolved shortly thereafter, because I suggested to S.’s Mom that it might be a good time for S. to give out the goody bags she had helped to shop for and assemble for each child at the party.
Crises averted for the time being, but the word “Kill ” lingers in my mind. Time will tell how S. processes this new concept. I will watch and wait to see if ,and when it pops up in her play again, and will talk with her parents about what I observed as well , and how we might approach helping S. to deal with this new idea.
By the way, another teacher of mine, Nancy Carlsson Paige, recently published a book that I highly recommend ,called Taking Back Childhood, Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast- Paced , Media- Saturated, Violence- Filled World.
In fact, I’m going to take another look at this book now, because it seems the world has intruded, as it is wont to do. A little bit of innocence that once was has been eroded, and honestly I am in need of some guidance here myself !