What is physical aggression? Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) esp. when intended to dominate or master.”
As you see from this definition, aggression isn't synonymous with violence, which is defined as, “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in effecting illegal entry into a house).” Violence includes the intent to injure or abuse, aggression does not. Aggressive impulses are the urge to dominate and control, not necessarily to hurt. This is an important distinction to make as you observe young boys at play.
An active boy is not always an aggressive boy. If you watch boys playing you can easily see that many boys like to run, jump, and roughhouse. Boys like physical play; they like to move their bodies and burn off excess energy. They will chase each other, kick balls, and play tag until they are exhausted. This is normal — scientists know that boys are predisposed to higher levels of activity. This is a direct result of being exposed to androgens (male hormones) before birth.
Social learning theory has been the basis for many mentoring programs like the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The idea is that when you pair a child with an older child or adult, the child will observe, learn, and model his behavior after the positive behavior of the adult. Some bully prevention programs have begun to adopt similar mentor-type strategies.
So what accounts for the way some boys will turn straws into guns, juice boxes into bombs, and sticks into light sabers? How they will fight and kill the bad guy and go looking for more bad guys? How they worry their parents with talk of shooting, stabbing, and cutting the head off their enemy?
Researchers aren't sure, but what they do know is that boys in all cultures roughhouse, mock fight, and are drawn to play that centers around the themes of power and domination. But that play doesn't often translate into real-life violence. All human beings have normal aggressive impulses and the potential for violence, only a small percentage have chronic difficulty controlling them.
As a young boy sees it, when he is killing the bad guy he's not engaging in socially unacceptable behavior, he's simply protecting the people he loves and making the world a better place. This type of play is helpful and can give a young boy the chance to work out his aggressive tendencies in a socially acceptable manner. He is learning to control and channel his impulses through his fantasy play. Intervention is necessary only if another child at play is injured or afraid. Otherwise, pretend aggressive play can be a healthy emotional outlet for young children.
For more information on gender-based male stereotypes, read Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, written by William Pollack; Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, by Leonard Sax; or Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.
Here is how you can support your son's active impulses and channel aggression through positive, proactive channels:
Allow some fantasy. If your son wants to pretend he is a superhero and uses violent imagery to kill the bad guys and crush the enemy, don't try to prevent it. Remember, it is play acting, not reality. If your son can defeat the bad guys in his mind, he will feel more powerful and be less likely to act it out for real.
Encourage active play. Let him run around and engage in physical and competitive play. Just be sure to monitor closely to be sure no one is being treated in an aggressive or unfair manner.
Limit the amount of screen time. Set limits on the amount of television, computer, and video-game viewing. Boys need activity; get him outside to play, and make sure the television he watches, the computer he navigates, and the video games he plays are all supervised and age appropriate.
Foster your son's interests. If he's a huge Batman fan, let him run with it. Whatever it is that he likes (trucks, baseball, bugs, or even Barbie dolls), show an interest and you will teach your son that you value his interests because you value him.
Keep the lines of communication open. Boys want and need to talk to their parents just as much as girls. If your boy has a tough time opening up, try talking while engaged in another activity like building a model airplane or a playing a video game.
Model appropriate behavior. You are your son's first teacher and a powerful and influential role model. Model constructive and socially acceptable ways to handle frustration and aggression and your child will learn from it and do the same.