I have an almost four-year-old son who is pretty smart for his age. He is very verbal and does understand feelings and when people are hurt, sad, happy — you name it! Last year, his uncle put YouTube videos of superheroes fighting each other. These videos are something that I am against and I really did not know how bad they were until I watched one completely through. I informed all that my son cannot watch these anymore at all!
A few months ago we were watching a movie. My son asked me what happened to a character’s mother and asked if he killed her. I said no, why would he want to hurt his mother? Then, a few weeks ago, we were sitting in the car and he told me he wanted to shoot someone. I was surprised and frightened. I am not sure what I said at that point but I was furious.
Maybe I am overreacting, I do not know. I am not a violent person and maybe I am being too judgemental or just thinking the worst. How the heck would these words come out of my innocent son’s mouth? Should I be concerned? What the actual heck?
Let me start by addressing your main concern of whether or not you should be concerned. Here’s my bifurcated answer: Should you be concerned the behaviors you’ve observed predict violent behaviors from your kid later in life? No. Should you be concerned about what they see, read, and experience from media and popular culture? Absolutely.
Four-year-olds are practically information sponges. This is essentially how they learn about the world. In psychological terms this is known as social cognitive theory. The idea is pretty simple and backed by decades of research. The gist is that humans, luckily, do not have to learn through trial and error. For instance, if that’s how we learned to drive, the roadways would be littered with piles of smouldering car wrecks. Instead, we have the ability to observe other humans and learn skills from what we observe. Even better, we can generalize and adapt those skills to fit other circumstances. When it comes to behavior, that means we learn ways to behave by watching how others behave.
Here’s the good news and bad news about this nifty trick of human learning. The outcomes tend to rely heavily on what’s being observed. The psychologist who developed social cognitive theory, Albert Bandura, illustrated this idea in his classic Bobo Doll experiment which is pretty dang pertinent to your situation.
In 1961, Bandura gather about 70 kids between the age of 3 and 6 years old on the campus of Stanford University in a controlled experiment to see if children could learn novel aggressive behaviors simply from observation. All children were individually invited into a room full of toys, including an inflatable Bobo doll — a bowling pin shaped, kid size inflatable with a weighted bottom so it always bobs upright. During the play session, adults would either play nicely with the Bobo Doll (in the case of the control group) or kick the ever loving crap out of it (in the case of the experimental group). Children were then observed playing on their own and their aggressive behaviors were measured.
Bandura found that kids who were exposed to the violent model were more likely to engage in violent behaviors with the Bobo doll compared to kids in the control group. Additionally they were likely to make up their own unique violent behaviors they never directly observed. In later experiments Bandura found that these results remained consistent even if the kids were simply watching a video of an adult model displaying violent behaviors. Videos of the experiment are pretty eye opening.
This is all to say the suspicions that your 4-year-old picked up these concerning behaviors from observation are probably on the money. That said, there’s no reason to believe that these behaviors are going to turn your kid into some kind of violent monster.
Luckily, we don’t often act on the first thing that pops into our minds. Unless something has gone awry with our brains, we can rely on our brain’s prefrontal cortex for moderation. This part of the brain is responsible for executive functioning. Basically, just like a CEO (hopefully) keeps a company’s worst ideas from putting it out of business, our brains can usually curb our worst ideas, whether that be to eat nothing but cookies for breakfast, or punch an asshole in the face.
But that executive function needs time to develop. And as any parent of a teenager, or faithful watcher of America’s Funniest Home Videos can tell you, kids don’t have a really great executive function. Jump on the trampoline from the two story roof? Hell yeah, says the brain! Scare the crap out of your mom by saying you want to shoot someone? Go for it!
That lack of executive function let’s a lot of weird and incomprehensible stuff slip through. Including all the things you mentioned in your letter. This will get better. Slowly but surely. So take a breath and know your kid is incredibly normal.
At the same time, understand that your son is impressionable. That doesn’t mean that everything they observe from the media is going to stick and stay forever. It just means that they’ll need you to provide context. Help them understand the difference between real and pretend. In the most age-appropriate way possible, help them understand what it means to “shoot” someone. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about death and killing. You can talk about hurting. You can talk about sadness. Use open-ended questions. Look to have a conversation. Draw out their curiosity about these things and answer questions honestly.
So when do you worry? Well, stay vigilant about violent behavior. You might want to talk with a mental health professional if your kid is consistently and intentionally harming animals, other children, or themselves.
More than any of that, lean into love. You are your child’s most important model. If you live a nonviolent life, both in values and in deeds, then you’re helping your kid understand what it means to live with those values. It sounds like you’re doing a good job of that too.