Violent Games, Pacifist Children

Mennonite boys playing "Risk." (From

A few weeks back at Toddlers & Scholars, Dave and Lisa Swartz shared a photo of their twins discovering the military strategy board game “Risk.” Their commentary on the discovery is priceless:

They have no idea of how to actually play, of course, but they think the little figures march around the map visiting each other–a much more appropriate strategy for Mennonite boys anyway.

The post reminded me of a great essay, “Teaching Peace to Children Who Play War.” Written by Shalom! editor (and friend of the search for piety and obedience) Harriet Bicksler for a fetschrift dedicated to Brethren in Christ historian Martin K. Schrag, the essay explores whether or not it is “possible to teach nonviolent peacemaking skills to children who are allowed to play with toys which are based on the assumption that force and violence are acceptable means of overcoming evil.”

Here’s a taste:

When our children are enamored with late twentieth-century superheroes and mechanical robots that transform into battle stations, we parents are responsible to teach them peace as well. We may not choose to . . . “say NO to everything even remotely conducive to war,” but our children still need to hear us say repeatedly that war, lethal force, and violence are incongruent with our understanding of our calling as Christian peacemakers.

To read the rest of Harriet’s piece, check out Terry L. Brensinger and E. Morris Sider, eds., Within the Perfection of Christ: Essays on Peace and the Nature of the Church (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press & Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 1990), p. 179-190.

Readers: If you are parents and pacifists, did/do you allow your children to play with “war” toys? How did/do you handle the issue? Share your thoughts and anecdotes in the Comments section.


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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9 Responses to Violent Games, Pacifist Children

  1. Beth Mark says:

    We did not purchase toy guns for our children (or GI Joes) but I know that my son played with them at the houses of other children. And of course they used sticks as pretend guns, which I now see my grandsons doing (and which I remember doing myself)!

  2. Harriet Bicksler says:

    Thanks, Devin, for highlighting this article! I actually revised it a tad for re-publication in A Peace Reader, edited by Morris Sider and Luke Keefer, Jr., in 2002.

    As you can see, I wrote the original article in 1990, when I still had kids at home. Now that I have a four-year-old grandson, who does not have guns to play with at home (or at my house!), I’m aware again of how, like Beth says, little boys are able to envision a gun out of almost anything. I wish I could remember what the object was, but just recently, I was holding something and my grandson looked at it and make some comment about it looking like a gun. My daughter wondered what I of all people was holding that he thought was a gun, but his comment struck me as a classic example of how little boys seem to naturally gravitate toward such things. All of which points again to the importance, from my point of view, of intentionally reinforcing peacemaking and reconciliation skills rather than violent and retributive solutions to conflict.

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      Thanks for these comments! I’m struck by two things: one, that we (as a peace church) are only now beginning to ask questions like this; and two, that such concerns seem to be a little bit gendered (Beth, your comment qualifies this observation).

      On point one: The other day I happened to read an oral history interview with Ray Witter, an early 20th century Brethren in Christ minister/bishop and cousin to Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the interview, Witter acknowledges “playing war” with the Eisenhower boys as children — in particular, re-enacting battles from the Spanish-American War (which, he recalls, would have been in the news and, I would imagine, on the lips of their parents at the time). Fascinating to see how Brethren in Christ (and even non-Brethren in Christ — Ida Eisenhower, Dwight’s mom, was by this time part of the Watch Tower movement, but still committed to pacifism) considered the realm of children (particularly imagination and play) outside the realm controlled by their notions about nonresistance. I have no evidence (although I’ll admit I haven’t looked into it too much) that the Brethren in Christ started asking questions about the influence of “violent” play on later attitudes about peace until the late twentieth century.

      On point two: I’m wondering — how were these kinds of attitudes about who plays with “war toys” gendered in the experience of the Brethren in Christ? Did only boys play with them? Did girls participate in these kinds of diversions? Beth, your remark (as I said before) suggests that girls were participating. (By the way: I’m not trying to point fingers or assign bias, I’m just curious. I guess my experience is that girls also played with such toys, and so I’m wondering. Also, M.J. Heisey in her book Peace and Persistence makes the point that Brethren in Christ attitudes about war, peace, and nonresistance were gendered, so I guess I’m ultimately looking for links.)

  3. David E Byer says:

    Devin, Evangelical Visitor Vol 114 Nov/Dec p 27 carries the obiturary of Viola E Burkholder Jensen Raser. Daughter of Bishop CC Burkholder b. 8 AUG 1900 d. 4 JUL 2001. [I note that according to the 1930 US Census, at that time she made her home in Pasadena CA as part of the Benjamin L Byer household, of whom she was sister-in-law. She was working as a trained nurse in a hospital.] According to the obit, in 1942 she enlisted in the US Army with the 22nd General Hospital, serving most of the time in England. In 1945 she ended service with the US Army having served with distinction. She was married to Theodore Jensen, and after his death she was married to Rudolph L Raser who survived. She retired from her duties as Head Nurse LA County Hospital Admissions in 1966. It would be interesting to know the factors involved in her decision to enlist. Would her enlistment result in less criticism because of gender and profession? We know there were repercussions in the Upland congregation in dealing with a number of the male members upon their retrun from service. David

  4. Elaine Byer Reed says:

    Fascinating!!!! Thanks to all of you. I don’t think we bought our son guns–well maybe a water gun, but he has always been a Star Wars fan.

  5. Harriet Bicksler says:

    The gender question is an interesting one and I don’t know the answer. I have a gut sense of things but no hard evidence. My limited experience as the parent of both a girl and a boy and the grandparents of one of each as well tells me that little boys are far more likely to fashion guns out of anything at hand and imagine /play “shoot-em-ups” than little girls. (My own children’s friends of the same gender seemed similar in their proclivities.) But obviously, this is a really small sample and given the opportunity and motivation, I’m sure lots of little girls also play “war.”

  6. Karen D. says:

    From an early age, my sisters and I were taught that killing and war were wrong, and we knew that our relatives had chosen conscientious objector status and we liked to hear about their experiences in alternate service. What really drove the point home was the true story that during World War I, when that exemption was not an option, my grandfather went to jail for refusing military service.

    Still it was tempting to play “shoot ’em up” games with the neighbor kids. We were not allowed to have toy guns in our house, but our parents knew that we sometimes played with them at our friends’ homes. I remember one family of boys where we always played “Cowboys and Indians” at their house, and when they came to ours they loved dress up to “play house” with us, and took particular delight in my new Betsy Bake oven with real little cakemixes. I believe that my parents were wise in clearly teaching about peace, but not getting all bent out of shape if we ended up playing “war games” with other kids.

    When my husband and I had two sons, we taught them the way of peace, and took the path of not buying them any realistic looking toy weapons, but didn’t overeact when they played with other children’s guns. I believe one very significant influence in their decision to be conscientious objectors was our family trip to Hiroshima. This was in the 1980’s during our first term as missionaries in Japan. It was on Peace Day, which is the anniversary of the dropping of the Atom Bomb. They were ages 5 and 7. Some other missionaries advised us not to take them into the “Atom Bomb Museum” in Peace Park, saying it was too horrific for impressionable young children. But we took them, and I know that this experience, coupled with seeing and talking with actual Hiroshima survivors who also came out that day, had a positive lasting impact on both boys.

  7. Elaine Byer Reed says:

    When I went to elementary school (public rural school in Kansas) the girls played “Cowboys and Indians”. Maybe the boys played too, in a different group; or the boys might have been playing ball. I was very intimidated by this as it was not in my experience at all, at that time. I know 2 of my nephews took boxing or wrestling. Maybe sports is a partial answer to the problem.
    Karen, your Hiroshima story is very powerful.

  8. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments on this post. I’m thrilled that people have responded to the topic.

    Karen, I concur with Elaine: Your story of Peace Day at Hiroshima is extremely powerful. Thanks for sharing it.

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