Children Playing Soldier
( Originally Published 1916 )
IN times of peace, many of us can visualize the horrors of war clearly enough to make us oppose everything that encourages militarism. But with half of the civilized world bleeding, the horrors are before the minds of all of us constantly, and we are moved to do something more effective than hut our eyes. We realize the importance of inculcating in the young a type of patriotism that is free from aggressiveness or jingoism. Confident of our patriotism we turn our attention to a crusade against " military " toys and the playing of soldiers by the children.
There is of course no use in over-stimulating children in these plays. Nothing is to be gained by urging a more lively interest in details of military campaigns, or in making the children more familiar with the instruments of destruction. But either is it wise to forbid boys playing soldier.
When boys play soldier it is in response to two facts which cannot be entirely removed. The child, at a certain age, will not only imitate what he sees going on around him, but he will dramatize all the activities of which he learns. This instinct is there, if the child is normal. Any outside regulation, to be effective, must consist, not of rules regarding what may or what may not be played, but of a selection of all the ideas that are to enter the child's mind. This is obviously an impossible task. With all his devices and resources, the father of the Buddha failed in his efforts to keep from the child all knowledge of suffering and death as he had planned to do. Nor can we hope to keep our children long in ignorance of suffering and death, of war and murder, of robbery and other crimes. And whatever they learn they will incorporate into their plays just as certainly as they have any opportunity to play at all.
Forbidding certain types of play will not modify the natural impulses to imitate and to dramatize. Neither will it destroy the child's natural interest in the unusual and in the " dramatic." On the contrary, forbidding is one of the surest ways of arousing interest, one of the surest ways of tempting to action.
But even if we could prevent the children's participation in these mimic paradings and warrings, it is very doubtful whether it would be worth while to do so. The injury that may come from playing soldier has been strikingly similar to the rumors of Mark Twain's death—grossly exaggerated. The fact is that children do all of their playing, at least during the years before adolescence, entirely without prejudice. They are alternately Indians and Puritans; they impersonate the parish priest or Captain Hook with equal sincerity and abandon. When they enact a stage robbery there is no moral implication in the assignment of roles, and as they view the drama of life from the unsophisticated level of three to four feet, every character has his proper place and is worthy of a fair presentation.
The perfect naivete of the child in adopting the character which he is for the time being impersonating is shown by the answer that little Tommy gave when his prim Aunt Sabrina discovered him dancing about in the nursery without a scrap of clothing on. " Whatever are you doing in this state, child? " asked the aunt in a tone that was meant to express reproach as well as disapproval. " Don't you see? " returned Tommy, pointing to his ankles, which were ornamented with bits of colored worsted ; " I am one of the Early Sea People." Tommy had not invented the character ; he had merely adopted him from the book they had been reading in school.
The question of the moral effect of impersonating the soldier is very much like the older question of what happens to the actor who takes the part of the villain in the play. Should the children's play be quite without its villains or bad fairies? Then it is incomplete and not sufficiently true to life to be interesting, to be satisfying. On the other hand, if the evil spirit is to appear, will it harm your child or mine to play his role?
Experience shows that children may play robber and pirate with great gusto and yet grow up to be upright and honored citizens—and even judges ! In the same way it is quite possible for children to play soldier and then become advocates of " peace at any price." The literary editor of a well known woman's magazine, the editor of an educational magazine, and a prominent minister all told me that they had had ambitions toward a military career—not during childhood, but during late adolescence. The editors both made strenuous but futile efforts to get into the West Point Military Academy; and the minister actually joined the army. All three are now earnestly combating militarism. And thousands of similar cases can no doubt be found in all parts of our population.
When there is so much constructive work that may be done in the development of children's characters, the worry about playing soldiers seems a pitiful waste of energy. It is a pity to snatch from Bobby his tin soldiers, or to look daggers at him when he admires a toy gun ; let the child have his play and he will be a better man for it. What is needed is not the hiding of drums and muskets, but the positive cultivation of ideals of peace and humanity. Moreover, at each stage of interest the play of the child affords an opportunity to formulate standards and ideals of conduct that should be seized and utilized. It is when he is playing soldier that the child can learn the meaning of loyalty and devotion and self-sacrifice and fortitude; and these may remain when the drum and tinsel are discarded for another character.