Child’s play: how the games young children play can have a negative impact on gender relations

children's games gender relations

When I was just five, a boy in my class at school called Jamie decided, quite suddenly, that he was going to make it his year’s mission to ‘kill me’. It was sort of a game and it sort of wasn’t. We definitely weren’t friends and we were quite different children. Jamie’s decision was a bit unexpected to tell the truth, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, at first, I wasn’t too scared.

The game/narrative drew in many of the girls and boys in my year, with the girls all rallying around me and the boys all supporting Jamie in his quest. Jamie’s idea of ‘killing’ me mostly involved him using all the lung power he could muster to yell ‘I’m going to kill you’ till he was red in the face. Occasionally, some lunchtimes would be spent with me running around the playground (usually with a couple of other girls), being chased by Jamie and some of his compatriots. On slightly more physical occasions Jamie would push me over, thwack me round the head or pick me up and carry me off as far as he could (I was quite a bit smaller than him). What probably distressed me the most was when he would throw his buttery crusts onto my chair at lunchtime, and I definitely remember thinking that that was the most sinister part of his plan to kill me. 

After a while, I grew fed up of the game, and just wanted to eat my lunch and break-time snacks in peace. When Jamie wouldn’t stop, I started to become anxious that maybe he really did want to kill me. Panicked, I told my mum, who then told my form teacher. My teacher, a stern but fair woman of whom I was in awe, resolved the situation remarkably quickly by asking Jamie whether he would like it if someone wanted to kill him. Deciding, on reflection, that he wouldn’t like it at all, Jamie immediately desisted from his murderous machinations. 

This is genuinely quite an amusing anecdote from my childhood, but I do think there is something more sinister to this than meets the eye. Although Jamie was realistically not going to kill me, the use of such violent language from such a young child towards another should be concerning. And what should also be concerning is that we as young children were playing out narratives of male violence towards women in our playground. Was this because we had picked something up from the society in which we lived? I think so. Young children cannot fail to absorb what they see around them. And while it might start off as child’s play, that kind of behaviour has the potential to become a dangerous adult reality. I never knew why Jamie picked me as his target, but I was the smallest girl in class at an age where there is very little difference in size and height between boys and girls. Did my size make him feel powerful? Did he think that to dominate and dwarf was what it meant to be male? 

I guess we’ll never know. While not every child’s game features killing as an integral part, there are still plenty that have a negative influence on adult gender relations. Consider these:

Games that reinforce gender stereotypes

Mummies and daddies is perhaps one of the most commonly played games by young children. It’s actually a very creative game and often takes lots of forms. I remember that when I was little we’d use the climbing frame as a ‘house’ and use the space at the side of the slide as our door. 

Often mummies and daddies was just played by the girls in the class, but sometimes the boys would join in. It’s sad, but in our games of mummies and daddies, the mums would always stay ‘home’ (usually with a baby – played by me as the smallest child) while the dads would go out to work. I have no idea how we actually made a game out of all this but it seems we did. 

Whether the modern day game of mummies and daddies is any different is unclear, and I expect it varies from playground to playground. However, there were other, more concerning things that I can remember from playing out the game, especially as we grew a little older and wanted to spice things up. 

I remember that sometimes we used to act out arguments between ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, and these were often excuses for us to practice our secretly learned swear-words. All very amusing, but I think playing out two parents swearing and shouting at each other was not the best behaviour for children to be engaging in. I guess we all knew that arguments were a normal part of family life, and some of us will undoubtedly have been witnessing unhealthy arguments in the home. What is worrying is that, often, the only arena for children to play out what they see at home is in the playground and away from the guidance of teachers and responsible adults. Perhaps if teachers were aware that children behaved like this, some sort of education around how to debate an issue healthily or express yourself constructively might have been implemented. It really ought to be standard across schools. 

Another similar game to mummies and daddies is princesses and knights (or queens and kings). This reenactment of Arthurian legend (or basically, pretending to live in a castle) usually involves the boys being gallant and gallivanting knights, rescuing the girls from all sorts of concocted perils. I do remember feeling very bored as I waited to be ‘rescued’, but when I questioned that status quo I was told that I had to wait patiently or I wouldn’t be allowed to be a princess. The thing is, the ‘knights’ always seem to be rescuing you from either monsters, or other men who wish to do you some unspecified harm. The idea that women are just objects through which men conduct their interactions undoubtedly is realised by children and happily adopted by them. It is this same idea which, objectifying women, opens them up to possessiveness and abuse. 

kiss chase
Some tag games

Ok, so it’s one tag game in particular that is problematic, but I’d say that this game is really very worrying. 

Kiss chase is something we used to play all the time in the playground. When I used to play, the boys would chase the girls. When my brother played a few years later, it worked the other way round. 

Kiss chase, enacted by children, is quite an innocent thing. But we would be closing our eyes to reality if we failed to see that the game has some very sinister connotations. Where the idea that running around after someone and forcing a kiss upon them is ok came from is unclear, but it probably didn’t come from a good place. 

Nobody thinks that kiss chase is real life, but the sense of entitlement (specifically male) to sexual favours is. When children play out this game in the playground, they think it’s fun, but they also begin to believe that this is the way that romantic interactions can work. 

Some concerned parents have actually called for the game to be banned, citing their child’s distress at being pinned down and ‘kissed’. We often diminish children’s fears and feelings, but this distress is a very real expression of fear at having one’s bodily autonomy compromised. It’s not acceptable when it happens to adults, and so it shouldn’t be acceptable when it happens to children. 

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