A trip to the playground is rarely a time of rest for parents. If you’re not chasing the little one to make sure your toddler doesn’t fall off that perilously high ladder, you’re likely participating in a universal game that requires no rules or explanation, just a shared look and short request. “Daddy, Monster!”
You give in, you roar, you chase, you (pretend to) scare. The absurdity of the ask is usually drowned out by its frequency. Your kid seemingly wants you to scare the crap out of them on the playground, at home, on the walk back from school. But why?
Kids seek out the monster for a simple reason: A jolt of fear escalates regular play into an exhilarating drama. Thrilling, high-stakes play allows kids to push their boundaries without the risk of real danger.
“You get the heart racing and maybe the goosebumps in a situation where they’re going to be okay,” says Emily Freeman, PhD, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia who studies how play between children and parents affects cognitive development.
But it’s not just exhilaration they’re after. “Monster” play can give kids the chance to reckon with something they’re truly afraid of — a big dog, the crash of thunder, sharks in the deep end — from a safe distance. “It’s a way to explore those themes that might be scary to them in real life,” says Stephanie Carlson, PhD, research director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.
A “monster” chasing them could represent an animal — what little kid isn’t aware of the dangers of a lion or tiger — a scary stranger, or another kid who maybe pushed them once in daycare. When you jump into the game, their imagination mingles with a natural flight or fight response (the thrill of the chase!), and they are able to, in a sense, play-act their way around their fears. It is crucial that they only ask a parent or close adult to scare them — a trusted caregiver who they know offers no risk of real danger. “When we feel safe and secure we become more confident in exploring,” says Sheila Anderson, PhD, an early childhood researcher at Weber State University in Utah.
By the time kids can communicate, many ask for this kind of play on a near-daily basis. And as their thinking advances, the level of play is likely to evolve. There are counterattacks and insurgencies and, often, an increasing physicality. “Dad’s big and maybe he’ll squash you. Can you be so bold as to jump on dad?” asks Jennifer StGeorge, PhD a family studies lecturer and researcher at the University of Newcastle.
For even for the most monster-loving kid, such play between caregivers and children tends to taper out by the end of elementary school, as kids prefer to play with peers over their parents. Still, it would be untrue to say that they “grow out of it.”
Just ask the millions of adults who buy tickets every year to experience their own monsters, from the safety of a plush movie theater chair. When adults watch scary movies (a more than half-billion-dollar industry), they too are testing their fears. The monsters might have more teeth — and a lot more blood — but they are just as harmless as any “monster” chasing a kid around the playground. Also like the kids, adults have different thresholds for fears — from those who don’t blink when Bill Skarsgaard flashes his dagger-sharp teeth as a flesh-eating clown-alien in It to those who can’t handle the mostly harmless CG ghosts in Ghostbusters.
In the same way a horror film can be too much for certain adults, monster play can go too far for some kids. Parents aren’t always in sync with their child’s comfort level with scary play. When children play together, they tend to check in with each other to affirm their play is just that, but “adults easily overlook that signal,” says Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early childhood education at Queen Maud University in Norway. The parents that push their kids too far are often met with tears. And some research by Carlson suggests that when dads aren’t well attuned to their kids’ comfort levels with risky play, preschoolers appear less ready to succeed in school.
“It’s the same as when a child climbs a tree,”says Sandseter. “Some children climb very high up to get the thrill and some climb to the first branch, and that’s enough.”
At the end of the day, a kid wanting you to be a monster is not a kid wanting to be afraid. It’s a signal they’re feeling secure and supported. And when they stop asking for monsters? It means they’re ready to start exploring the world on their own and face the real fears out there, with a little less help from their parents.