Children can be a mystery. Just like grown ups, they can be moody and have big feelings. But with kids, it’s hard for them to articulate and understand what’s on their mind (And this is sometimes a challenge for us adults too.). Instead of telling us, they show us. They act up, misbehave, have outbursts and shut down. Fortunately, another way they show us is through their play. Famous psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott have given us thoughtful ways to understand a child’s inner life.
There are two things going on when kids play:
- They are expressing and fulfilling wishes and
- They are attempting to master the challenges of life.
Some might add one more thing: Children play to avoid taking care of responsibilities. But I would argue that this is also a way of expressing a wish. — A wish to avoid responsibilities or difficult feelings.
Let’s take a look at wishes and young children. When young children play, they act out all the things they want. They wish they were the fastest. They wish to be brave and strong. They wish to be loved, have fun and enjoy ideas, thoughts and interests. Below are some examples of wishes you might see being played out in different age groups.
A 2 year old — As his mother pushes his wheels down the track, a 2-year-old might be saying (If they could articulate it!), “It feels good that I can make things go after not being able to crawl/walk/move for so long!” Or “I can make things go away and come back by pushing my car even though I can’t control when my mommy goes away or comes back.” Or, “I can push my toy car to an imaginary ice cream store and have all the ice cream I want unlike real life when my parents only let me have that yummy treat once in a while.”
A 4-year-old — He has a baby doll with him that he feeds and takes care of. The doll cries and needs his diaper changed and the 4-year-old competently changes the babydoll and feeds it. It is as if to say, “I wish to be like my parents” or “I wish to have a baby and take care of it.” Another 4-year-old might insist on wearing a superhero costume 24/7 — saving pretend kittens and fighting “bad guys.” It is as if the child is saying, “I wish to be big, strong and unstoppable, when in reality I am small and not as strong as the adults in my life.”
Many wishes are positive and feel good. By enacting their wishes through play children can fulfill the wish, when they may not be able to have it in real life. Or if they had the wish fulfilled in real life but it was fleeting, like a birthday party, they can make it last longer by playing with the same theme.
But what about wishes that are not acceptable to the child or/and to the grown up? What if your child wishes her brother wasn’t around anymore so she can have her parents all to herself? What if your child wishes to destroy something because it feels good? What if your child wishes to learn more about guns, but their parents say guns are dangerous? What if your child wishes mommy would go away so he can have daddy all to himself? Children use imaginary play to express these wishes and desires too. Forbidden wishes are expressed in play so they don’t have to be acted on in real life.
Many parents worry that if their child is interested in violent themes or expresses forbidden wishes in play, they might be prone to violence or enacting the forbidden wish. This is often not the case. There are many ways to interpret and understand a child’s play and it can be healthy to express forbidden wishes in play so it doesn’t have to be worked through in “real time.”
For example, a parent sees their child using his Legos to play with guns and “kill bad guys.” A parent might be tempted to stop gun play or pretend killing, if they feel that guns are out of sync with their values and beliefs. But what if the parent explores the play? Why do they have to use guns to get the bad guys? Perhaps the child says that guns are cool. A parent might say, “I wonder if you are curious about how guns work, but you also know that they are dangerous and they can hurt people?”
A parent could also ask the child, “Who are these bad guys and why must they be defeated? Is it true that these ‘bad guys’ are all bad?” Sometimes, a child sees their parent as “bad” for setting limits with them, and they are figuring out these difficult feelings and expressing them in their play. Other times, children are grappling with “bad guys” because they are dealing with parts of themselves that they perceive as “bad.” Wouldn’t it be easier to simply “kill off parts of ourselves” that we find unacceptable such as jealousy, envy, greed or anger? A child has to deal with being slower than anyone who is older than them. They have to grapple with not knowing a lot about the world compared to others. They are small and can’t defend themselves. Some of these experiences of the self are difficult to master and one way to master them is to express wishes to defeat and understand these difficulties through their play.