As a clinician and researcher, Dr. Michael Gurian states that the ultimate practical answers lie in the word “danger.” If a child is in danger, then a teacher must intervene immediately. But if there is no danger, then the rough play is generally useful in developing resilience, social-emotional skill, empathy, bonding, attachment, and problem-solving. Thus, he suggests the teacher practice a non-interventionist policy as much as possible. This doesn’t mean curtailing one’s own instincts to intervene–adult instincts are powerful and useful–but it will mean ending the popular assumption in our culture that “touch” and “aggressive play” are dangerous in themselves.
Just the opposite. When kids pick up sticks and start to sword fight, or when they horse around, wrestle, jump on each other, and even challenge each other by seeming to hurt one another, they are generally building up specific social-emotional and other centers and pathways in the brain. A scientific approach is best, one in which we practice “citizen science” by using our own empirical observations as adults to tell us whether there is a pattern of bullying in a particular set of interactions, or whether what is happening is actually “challenge nurturance” and “aggression nurturance”–healthy and important to child development.
We will likely find that in most cases, it is healthy. In these cases, our best role is to let the children mature one another through the activities–even when some of them are painful activities–then be there for the children afterward to process anything leftover from the experience. For instance, a more sensitive boy or girl may not have had as much fun as a more naturally aggressive boy or girl during a challenging interaction, so we can help this child to process and learn from the aggressive nurturance. And we can help all the children expand their vision of what happened during the interaction, if needed. Again, in most cases, this can occur after the interactions rather than occurring in such a way as to stop the children from having the interactions that are, often, their best teachers.
To move to this kind of whole child approach, we will need to keep in mind that “aggression” and “violence” are not the same thing. Aggression is healthy; violence is unhealthy. Aggression can be just as nurturing as talking about feelings; violence is a learned behavior that is, in most cases, a way of dominance and destruction we do not want to teach children. Our culture has confused aggression and violence and, thus, has somewhat devastated the natural frameworks of child development, especially male development, that existed to help mature males in the past.
The goal of childhood is not comfort, after all; it is maturation. As Dr. Gurian has discovered in his research, “Through a childhood filled with aggression and problem-solving the neural pathways between the limbic brain and the frontal cortex grow and mature; without kinesthetic and playful aggression between children, these pathways are less likely to mature.” We adults exist in the lives of the children in our care to help them mature by developing resilient selves, and emotional boundaries. To develop these things, our children must face challenge and aggression head on.
That said, the maturation process is not meant to be Lord of the Flies or child-centered chaos. It involves adults compelling apologies between children when apologies are needed; teaching children adult values; teaching children to use words some of the time rather than bodies; helping children direct their anger to punching bags and inanimate objects rather than anything living; helping children becoming increasing self-aware by reflecting back to them how the play looked and felt to the adult; helping children self-regulate when they “go too far,” and being there for them with hugs or band aids when hurts and pains occur. And always, of course, we must remain vigilant. When actual bullying occurs (violence) our adult intervention must be immediate and useful to the maturation of both the victim and bully.