A Dangerous Game

There is no childhood scene more idyllic than the sidewalk lemonade stand. My daughter, Claudia, once loved to pull out her sales-counter crate and wait out front until a friendly neighbor came by for a drink and a chat. Then, generous girl that she is, she contributed her proceeds to her sister’s horse-buying fund.

Now that she’s 7 years old, Claudia still likes to meet the neighbors. These days, though, instead of lemonade stands, she stages accident scenes.

A few weeks ago, she used her Halloween monster makeup kit to paint herself and a friend with faux gore. Their elaborate scheme entailed lying on the shrubbery until someone came over to investigate. Then, they planned to jump up and yell “Surprise!” Thus, they hoped, they would terrify innocent pedestrians out of their wits.

As I surveyed them through the front window, I wondered where my daughter developed her macabre obsession: she loves the theatrical grotesque to a fault. I had to intervene the other day when she suggested to another friend that they play, “There’s a bomb in the school!”

I’m mystified as to where she even learned about such attacks, since our school doesn’t hold lockdown drills. She overheard older students, I suppose, or caught a snippet of the news when I didn’t realize she was listening.

Anyway, you’ve got to have limits, so I banned play-acting school terrorism. As a rule, though, I don’t meddle, even when things get gruesome. During the “accident scene” game, apart from requiring her to wear a shirt outside, I decided not to interfere. By then, they had become zombie crash victims. Each held up a few crumped dollar bills, telling me “That’s what zombies do to catch people!”

Whenever kids act eccentrically (so, daily, at least), I assume that behavior serves a developmental purpose. After a ghastly fashion, Claudia’s terrifying game resembles “playing house.” Domestic play trains kids to take care of their own homes someday; maybe games of peril prepare them for potential dangers?

As we walk home from school, Claudia often says, “Pretend you’re following us and we’re trying to get away.” To an outsider, this must appear strange: two young girls shuffling along a residential street, looking back fretfully at the sheepish adult man following them. There’s no logic to this game – for one thing, why did they ask their potential kidnapper to carry their backpacks? Still, inventing pretend menaces must be Claudia’s way of practicing for the day when she might have to avoid real ones.

And my kids have started to make terrible discoveries about the world’s dark corners. They learn from their friends every time there’s a school shooting; in the cafeteria, they discuss war and global warming. It’s no wonder that they emerge from these conversations seeking reassurances that there are safe havens in the world.

Finally, Claudia and her friend skulked back inside, dissatisfied with their ghoulish performance. Though they had hoped for a weeping crowd of onlookers, only one neighbor came to investigate. She knows my kids, so she was less alarmed than amused.

As the girls wiped grease paint from their faces and arms, I wondered if I should have prevented them from playing their grisly game. Shouldn’t I have steered them toward baking a cake or making a puzzle?

But no, I think. By acting out these horrible scenes, Claudia learns to recognize darkness without succumbing to despair.  

And, at least when they play, the makeup can be wiped off.

Graham Charles blogs at Doodaddy.net

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