Can War Games Work For You, Too?

I’m a pacifist. Really. I like the idea of people working things out minus guns, bombs or body armor. But when it came to getting my oldest son to clean up his room, I sometimes put my personal feelings aside and got into the military game myself. Why?

Well, you have to understand that this particular six-year-old was obsessed with every aspect of the army, navy, and marines. Believe me, neither my husband nor I created or pushed his infatuation with the armed forces – we are not a military family and we have no idea why he was so into uniforms and chains of command. But he was definitely smitten with the whole stars-and-stripes thing, big time.

I guess it probably started with a G.I. Joe “action figure” (not doll, mind you) that he got for his birthday. He loved that toy and spent hours with his blocks and Legos outside in the dirt and on the floor of his room building forts and ships, and setting up maneuvers aimed at catching the “bad guys.”

Since I’m a firm believer in the power of imagination, I did encourage this kind of play and took full advantage of his interest in the military to further my own parental goals. “Why not?” I thought. “Might as well enter his world of make-believe and milk it a little.”

So, that’s what I did. Whenever his room got too messy, I joined the Armed Forces and assumed the rank of Colonel. It was the biggest job I could think of, not being too familiar with the whole “who’s who” of the various branches of the service.

I would say, “Hey, your room is a mess and you need to clean it up. But let’s make it fun. Let’s pretend we’re in the army and I’m the colonel and you’re the captain! We’re about to get a visit from the Commander-In-Chief and he’s going to be inspecting all the barracks. Okay?”

His eyes would light up and he would say, “Okay, Mommy.”

Then I would use a deep, serious voice and tell him: “Captain Schrier, I need for you to get these barracks spick and span! The President is making a visit soon and everything must be in order. You’ll have to get your men and women organized, but first this room has to be spotless. Don’t forget, you set the example for those under your command.”

I swear to God, he would stand straight and tall, “at attention,” and not dare to break a smile. This was as close as he could get to the army and he was having a ball.

Next, I would break the huge job down into maybe two smaller ones, like putting all the clothes in the hamper and all the toys in the toy box. I would tell him to “Report to me when you have completed the mission.”

He would salute and answer, “Yes, Sir!” I would salute back, turn, and walk away. In about 10 minutes I would check back and resume my Big Cheese role. Then I would walk slowly around the room, carefully inspecting what he had done.

Assuming it was up to snuff, I would say something like, “Very good work, Captain Schrier. The Commander-In-Chief will be gratified to see your outstanding organizational skills. Next, you need to put away those crayons. Report to me when you have completed that job.”

More saluting and “Ten huts” and “Yes Sir’s” would follow, as I left the room to attend to my other “duties.” I would purposely use words like “gratified” or “organizational skills” to make the whole thing sound more grown-up and official. Since he didn’t know these words yet he would pull me aside and ask about them. “Mommy,” he would whisper, “What does ‘gratified’ mean?” And I would whisper back, “Oh, that means really pleased.” Then we would go back to our roles and carry on.

When the barracks were clean, I would invite him to the Mess Hall for a treat. We would head to the kitchen and celebrate with a plate of cheese, crackers and apples, or a popsicle. Mission accomplished.

This strategy really worked and it not only got the job done, it did a lot more, too. His kid obsession with the military gave him a chance to meet some of his developmental needs through playing “good guys vs. bad guys.” Even though I am not enamored with the idea of guns and war, this kind of play gives kids a sense of control and mastery when they catch the scary guys and put them in jail.

Whether their game is called Cops and Robbers, Witches and Fairies or Army Man, it lets them express the normal feelings of hostility and fear they have about real-life threats in the world and also explore moral concepts like death and killing.

So, that was part of what was going on when he played in the sand with his tanks, guns and soldiers. But when I expanded that activity to include our game of Captain and Colonel, it added another layer.

For starters, it let him engage in a form of play that is exceptionally rich and beneficial. He got to role play, use his imagination and pretend. So even though he was doing a real job in the real world, he and I were also playing pretend together and it was fun.

Next, he was learning how to take a big job that seemed overwhelming and break it into smaller, achievable tasks – an important life skill that needs a lot of practice on the way to mastery. At the end of the game, he always felt very proud of what he had accomplished.

He was also exploring the notion of hierarchy. He was learning what it was like to be part of an organization with different levels of authority. Our game gave him the chance to follow rules and take orders from someone in a position of authority, not unlike that which goes on with a boss, teacher or parent.

And he was also practicing the character trait of accountability. This is really important, because children must learn how to be accountable to others, on the way to learning how to be accountable to themselves. It, like everything else, needs to be learned and honed again and again.

All in all, this was a great, fun game for my little guy despite the other, hidden benefits. When I mentioned to him that I was writing a post about “Colonel and Captain” we both had a good laugh. I asked him whether he had really been having as much fun as he seemed to be way back when.

My now not-so-little son, who is all grown up and studying law said, “Mom, I LOVED that game. You have no idea.”

“Cool,” I thought. “Works for me.” Maybe it can work for you, too!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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One response to “Can War Games Work For You, Too?”

  1. Can War Games Work For You, Too? – fullarmorofgodblogs

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