Friends for My Violent Five Year Old

I hate to say it, but my youngest son, Leopold, has become a savage monster.

What happened to my baby who loved dinosaurs and Legos, and puzzles and wooden toys and even dressing up dolls on occasion?  Slowly but steadily, he’s moved from an innocent obsession with bombs and boogers to full throttle violence with a capital V.

Leopold used to sit happily while his nails were painted a delicious rainbow of sparkles by four giggling older sisters. But today, he wants no part of it, unless maybe the color is blood red. Everything lately has become guts and gore. If he does play with Legos, it’s to fashion a knife that he uses while pretending to be a hired hitman. He then artfully executes me while I’m working unsuspectingly at my laptop. Or, he snaps those colorful blocks together to make some kind of dismemberment machine for the tiny lego men, which leaves their little lego heads strewn all over the house.

I don’t remember the older boys being this brutal.

I’m not usually one to consult child development books or parenting how-to’s – I’m the So-Called Mom, remember? –  but this raised enough of a concern that I fled to my library for some of my own extra-curricular. I chose the obvious: It’s a Boy: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18. At first glance, this book describes how parents often overreact to boy aggression at ages five to seven, but apparently this is how they develop “leadership skills” and become “socially resilient.” (I have put these in quotes because apparently these are our culture’s measure of “success”.)  In essence, the book instructed me to trust Leopold’s violent play, and that he will eventually self regulate through friends.

Now that’s what the usual mom might do.  But I’m not so usual.  I don’t just accept the so-called truth.  I think there’s other culprits at play here beyond the usual “age appropriate behavior.”

I think it’s screens.

I think screens have changed the rules in ways we are only recently starting to examine. As screens have taken precedence over almost every single activity and norm (research, family photography and filming, social interactions, of course all kinds of games), it seems naive to accept childhood violence as being strictly developmentally appropriate.

For instance, Leopold has learned about torture devices from his older brothers’ video games and watching YouTube at unmonitored moments—and not from watching Fox News or Bob the Builder. He not only has learned all about weapons and killing, but he has a clear understanding that they are for heroes and that the bad guys need to die.  And is Leopold just embellishing with his own active imagination?  I think it’s more insidious.

I think Leopold takes it to uncomfortable heights – or at least a level that I am uncomfortable with.  He frequently jumps the shark when he Lego-bombs his sisters or attacks me with hand stripped twig-shanks. This isn’t in alignment with the material in that book which suggests that Leopold’s friends will guide him with age-appropriate behavior. That together, they make the rules and hold each other to them. So I’m just now learning (on kid 7) about the importance of friends–that no one can get by on family alone, no matter how many siblings you have to play with.

I think this is the cultural impact of the internet and screens.

To add to this, Leopold is an unbelievably muscular kid, who at five, doesn’t yet know his own strength. What he has already realized is he can use it to intimidate and destroy things. He breaks apart tree branches so they become varying weapons of mass destruction. He bears his chest with zero embarrassment and hulks his way around the house, slamming doors, throwing toys, unwary of anything in his path.

So yeah, I”m pulling the plug on him, just as I did with Milla. And it’s a safe bet that he’s going to like it even less. But I’m observing his innocence and inventiveness being ruined by this disturbing new kind of play, and at five, I can still influence most of what he does.  I’m also ramping up in other ways to engage him, like enrolling him in some activities so he can socially engage with kids his own age.  He will start a gymnastics course to help him redirect some of this boundless energy.  Hopefully he’ll start focussing on walking on the balance beam rather than the pirate’s plank.

Desperately seeking friends,

So called mom