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Diane’s Adventure in Bibliotherapy: Creating Quakers Love Bad Guys

Having the pleasure of observing 4, 5 and 6 year-olds at recess twice a day, I have been granted a window into child’s play. I have been privileged to watch youngsters play unfettered by the confines of adult direction. The time of day we call recess is a space where children get to relate to each other, however they choose. They can run, shout, imagine, climb, swing and jump. Depending on the emotional and social climate, they can include or exclude, they can be kind or mean. They can choose behaviors that are acceptable or unacceptable. They can conduct secret games and indulge in activities that are potentially dangerous.

I have observed a tendency for pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners, ages 4 to 6, to love to play bad guys and chase each other with sticks. The sticks (or their hands or whatever else they find on the playground) act as guns. As they run after the bad guys, they make shooting sounds. Dramatic play in the block area also has its share of fascination with bad guys. When children are playing with the plastic animals in the block area, they enjoy making some the bad guys, whom can be beaten or eaten by the good guy animals.

As a humane person and as a Quaker teaching in a Quaker school, I instinctively feel a bit uneasy with children labeling some characters bad. I realize that I bring my older rational approach to the scene, but I do believe that people are inherently good and it is my hope that young children will not want to label somebody as bad.

However, as a professional educator, I know that it is not a failing of society when 5 year olds want to play bad guys. Children have anxiety about doing “bad things” or having “bad feelings”. They project the badness onto an animal or a character that can be captured and disabled, or eaten or killed. The badness is thus controlled and contained by them so they feel strong and safe. By externalizing the badness they can conquer it and feel relieved.

It’s a developmental milestone of young children to struggle with feelings of powerlessness. They see their parents and other adults being in charge, wielding power and having the ability to make them do things they don’t like; i.e. go to bed, brush teeth, get in the car for school, or leave the playground.

I wanted to create a book that deals with the conflict between the reality of children’s play - their emotional desire to be powerful - and the Quaker testimonies value system.

Quakers believe there is good in everyone, that there is Light in everyone and that peaceful action is the way to resolve a conflict. Violence in any form is not an acceptable way of handling a feeling or situation for true Quakers. So what do I do as a Quaker teacher in a Quaker school when I see my sweet children chasing each other with pretend guns, sticks, and shooting to kill? I talk about safety and ask them to give me the sticks. I know they are earnest in their desire to play “catch me” games and run while feeling strong and powerful. I don’t want to take that away from them, but I do need to protect them from potential harm. I know that children go underground with their catch me, shooting games. They are often surprised when I catch them with their hand pointed like a gun and I ask them about it.

I see the dilemma as: how do we acknowledge their desire and need to be powerful, which is developmentally appropriate, while communicating true Quaker values in a school that is centered around Quaker testimonies, especially non-violence?

Parents new to the school are often astounded that some children are mean to each other on the playground, hit each other and play with pretend guns. The faculty counsels that this school is not a utopia and that children do what is developmentally appropriate for children everywhere to do, even in a Quaker school. Of course we do effectively respond to discourage that behavior in a compassionate manner, like teachers everywhere.

The issue of pretend guns is a difficult one. If we are teaching peace we should not allow children to play shooting games with pretend guns. But the children’s developmental issue of power vs. powerlessness continues to appear. It sprouts between the seams of our quilt that is woven without Quaker values. That quilt covers the philosophical and spiritual foundation of the school.

Some Quaker schools lay down the law and just say NO superheroes, NO talk about action figure television shows or movies, NO guns, NO bad guys. Unfortunately, this policy only forces children to be sneaky.

Most of the time I have said NO to guns play, making it clear that I am uncomfortable with guns because they are very dangerous and can kill people. I remind children that this is a Quaker school and we don’t think using guns is a good idea, that we don’t like guns.

While I do feel comfortable with this position, I also realize that children in the

pre-operational stage, as described by Piaget, are not as rational as older children. They see guns as a way to exert strength and power. They are fulfilling a crucial step in their development. Perhaps the answer is to help them see other ways to be powerful, to be super strong in the community, to save people from overflowing garbage or a disastrous flood. I know that some schools have been successful in directing children’s dramatic play towards socially acceptable characters as superheroes. They highlight the real heroes who work in their communities and participate in their lives.

This story is my attempt to reflect the developmental issue of power vs powerlessness as it is played out in a Quaker school. The intended audience is children in Pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten and First grade, ages 4 to 6 years old.

While metaphor could be very effective, I chose instead to use direct reflection of the issue and tackle it head on. The language I used to invite self-expression and resolution in the children reflects real life scenarios. I deal with children’s interest in guns and their fondness for naming and playing bad guys. The story portrays the children’s excitement and joy in running and chasing. Safety issues arise when the recess teacher sees them running with sticks.

The main issue, the emotional nugget of the story is: how does a child feel protected and safe from bad guys - from those scary, negative feelings brewing inside - in a Quaker setting? Without guns in the arsenal, what do Quakers do to protect children, one character wonders. The story attempts to reconcile the gap between the Quaker values in a Quaker school and the reality of children wrestling with the developmental question of how can I feel powerful, strong and safe.

I used the vehicle of circle time in the class to invite responses from children. This way the answers and ideas come from a four and five year old sensibility rather than a teacher. This format enabled the story to include some wild answers that children might give. It also created spaces for children’s negativity and opposition to the adult ‘correct’ position on the issue. By bringing the negativity into the arena there is room for children to express themselves and talk about their real feelings in an open dialogue. To quote a professor of mine, Lesley Koplow, of Bank Street Graduate School of Education, “Reflecting negativity works well in Bibliotherapy.”

This story is my attempt to reflect the negativity and developmental issues that I encountered every week, through literature.

I use everyday real situations in the story. The different children in the story reflect the various personalities that are commonly found in a class.

It is my hope that children will express their honest feelings about wanting to be powerful and their feelings about loving to play bad guys. In the story, I applied something I learned in a class with Rick Ellis on Play. He mentioned that children need actual work and heavy lifting to relieve their feelings of aggression. The story character Mr. Silver presents, at a very opportune moment, a terrific work opportunity for the children. After doing some heavy lifting and persevering, they realize how powerful they truly are. Whether the connection between power and work is apparent to the children, it does provide one model for adults to help children with their powerful and strong desires.

The task of illustrating the story was most challenging, as I am not a trained fine artist with good drawing skills. It took time to find a solution. I tried sketching but decided upon using cut outs of characters. That gave me the advantage of positioning heads, chests and legs to express different emotions in the characters. By choosing a variety of skin colors, from card stock paper that I found, I could represent the true range of racial and ethnic backgrounds that exist in school. Drawing the facial expressions was an act of faith. I tried to reflect the tone of dialogue with open mouths and eyeballs in a range of positions. When dressing the characters I had to initially remember who was wearing what on which day. I felt like a wardrobe person on a film set. But then I changed the story to happen during just one day, eliminating that dilemma.

I am so grateful that this book is done - not perfect, but done - and available to serve as a catalyst for important conversations.

-Diane McDougall

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