“Hey you two—just pretend to eat, remember? If you put those spoons in your mouth, you’ll pick up germs. Just pretend to use them.”
That afternoon, the same two boys engaged in a mock karate battle on the playground. Hitting and kicking is forbidden in my class, regardless of whether it hurts anyone or not. To listen to them protesting the time-out, you’d think they’d never heard the rule.
“We weren’t fighting!” “You were kicking,” I said sternly. “We don’t kick here.”
“But we weren’t kicking!” they protested.
“We were pretend-kicking, just like pretend-eating.”
Check. I had encouraged pretend-eating. What was the difference?
It’s important to realize that children pick up reasoning skills early, but that they don't necessarily draw the conclusions you intend them to. Adults won’t always follow your thought processes either, of course, but children will follow them even less. For one thing, they don't share your knowledge base, and logic is a matter of combining and comparing facts.
Take a simple example. You know that germs cause disease. You’ve taught your preschoolers that, and you’ve also taught them to wash their hands when coming inside from the playground because dirt contains germs. They learned those lessons well, and are conscientious about trooping to the restroom every time they come inside. However, you didn’t teach them quite enough about germs. They acknowledge that dirt carries germs, but believe that if their hands aren’t visibly dirty, they’re germ-free. Not enough information.
The fake fight situation involves the same problem. The children see that they aren’t hurting each other. They aren’t even touching each other. So, they have no idea why you’d object.
“Sometimes people get hurt even when you pretend to fight,” I said. My ninjas just shook their heads impatiently, and said, “We won’t get hurt.”
How do you argue with that serene certainty? I tried another tack: “Sometimes I can’t tell whether you’re fighting for real or pretending. If you don't fight at all, then I know no one’s getting hurt.”
“We’re not fighting for real. We’ll tell you.”
Great. Big help. And of course, it’s not fair—let alone effective—to tell children that you don’t trust them to know whether they’re pretending, or to continue pretending when emotions escalate. Still, it’s important to give them your reasons. The children in your care should believe, dim-witted though you may be, that your decisions are in what you think is their best interest. Besides, they may surprise you with their understanding, and their turns of logic.
“If I let you pretend-fight,” I finally said, “then other boys and girls would think they could fight, too, and maybe they wouldn’t be as careful as you are.”
One tow-headed little boy scowled, unconvinced, but the other nodded wisely. “Like if we put spoons in our mouths even if we didn’t lick them,” he said, “littler kids wouldn’t know we were just pretend-eating.”
“Come on,” he told the other boy. “Let’s go play fireman.”
Sarah Starr is a preschool teacher and freelance writer from Lexington, Kentucky.