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Dear NCC: Young Person Seeks Out War Play

Updated: May 8, 2023

Dear NCC,


Our son is very interested in military vehicles and equipment and is drawn to camo-print clothes. His parents, however, are opposed to war. How do we support his interest and curiosity while also maintaining/imparting what we hope will be shared family values?


- Pacifist Parents


This is a question that has occupied many hours of my life as a facilitator (and even previously, as a teacher and teacher-trainer), and I have often gone back and forth. On one hand, the creative tension between youth autonomy and family values very often leads to deep personal reflection in each party. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming to feel like you are supporting a belief system that directly conflicts with your own. Where I have landed, as I continue to do these days, is on the foundation of the Balanced Response.


The Balanced Response, a crucial component of the creative problem solving process being used at Natural Creativity, is a tool to illuminate the value in an idea and to identify issues with the idea as “holes to be filled” before it can become a Possible Solution. The Balanced Response also demonstrates to the person who suggested the idea that you are really hearing them, looking for common ground, and that you are interested in working with them rather than shutting them down.


The Balanced Response begins with identifying at least three authentic pluses to the idea – they have to be true, specific, and concrete for the actual idea, and if possible, they should speak to the intended goal of the person who proposed the idea. Any concerns are shared only after at least three pluses and only one at a time; start with the biggest concern, phrase it as a “How to” statement, and be willing to engage with problem solving on how to fill that hole. The goal is not to pile on the concerns, as that simultaneously devalues the effort put into finding the pluses and risks killing off the idea (and the enthusiasm that went into it). A Balanced Response, when practiced effectively, supports the creative spirit of an idea and facilitates its development into a Possible Solution that works for all involved.


In the case of weapons and war-playing, the parent would benefit from first working to figure out why the young person is interested and to find the value inherent in the idea(s). For example, war games are often collaborative – the players form teams and work to resolve a conflict (often all players are on one side against an imaginary enemy) – and require active communication among all players. The identification of “good” and “evil,” while not appealing ways to label individuals or groups, allows for players to work through their understanding of the values that undergird those terms. Also, the war scenarios and imagined enemies are often stand-ins for real situations they are grappling with, which may feel as big as a war to the young person. Or, more often, the situation is a simulation of one’s own fear, which gives the young person an opportunity to practice their response in the face of fear – how do they manage their body, their breathing, their thinking and speaking, when scared, and how does that practice translate to the rest of their life?


Similarly, the design properties of many weapons are astonishing. Differences in how to make swords, from Medieval broadswords to Japanese katana blades, and what the purpose and impact of each design is – why some blades are curved, why some are thin – represent opportunities for deep learning. The design of guns and ammunition has other possibilities, including exploring ballistics, trajectory, chemical reactions, and engineering, which are compounded when looking at other forms, such as artillery or bombs. In all of these, there are ways to make connections and develop understanding across cultures, throughout history, and across the sciences. If a young person is interested in weapons and weapon-making, this interest can open the door to an entire world of content and connection-making, in the event the parent does not rush to judgement.


Of course, weapons and war (and celebrations of them) have real world consequences that many adults have great issues with, and it is totally appropriate, after working to find the pluses, to express the concerns as “How to” statements. For example: How to work as a team to solve a problem that does not involve pretending to kill or hurt others, or How to see how other objects travel through the air toward a target. In each of these, the pluses are not diminished by the concern, but instead used to build to a more acceptable (to you) Possible Solution…one that still allows for all the things the young person appreciates about the original idea, while also creating space for modification to meet the areas that matter to the parent.


This last piece speaks to the value of clientship. In any area of self-directed partnership education, it can be difficult for parents to know when to assert or insert themselves into the activity. A simple trick we use at NCC is to ask a person who raises a concern, “How is this a problem for you?” For most people, in most instances, the answer comes back, “It actually isn’t.” But for parents of their own young people, this can be a bit more complex.


The most seemingly direct answer is: “It is a problem for me because I have an obligation to instill a certain set of values into my young person.” While some might argue the semantics of the term “obligation,” there is little else that can be argued here. Parents have a certain amount of responsibility in preparing their young people for effective and meaningful participation in society as an adult, however they define it. Most parents believe this consists of building a set of intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal frameworks based on their value system. For some extreme cases, this boils down to what to think, what to feel, who to befriend, and “how to be a man.” Generally, it consists of how to think, how to feel your feelings, how to treat others and allow yourself to be treated, and how to be you and why.


All of that is to say that a parent would do well to consider the values they hold, and which they want to share with their young person, and how they want to share them. The last point – how – is critical because it is far too easy to speak about one set of values while acting in direct contradiction of that set of values. For example, in the case of guns and perpetuating violence and domination, many parents will resort to their own version of domination to get their young people to stop playing war (such as punishment or sanctions). Young people – and truthfully older people as well – get more of the message through the actions than the language, and so whatever you decide to do in response to your young person’s acts of militarism, please know they are learning more about your values from what you do than what you say.


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