I’m drawing the line at Hangman. A sense of predatory threat has a role in child development.

I saw a post maybe a year ago imploring people to stop playing the game Hangman with children. In this game, of which I am sure the reader is already familiar with, the letters of a word are written as blank spaces, as players guess what the specific letters are in the word. Every time the player gets a letter wrong, you draw a body part of the man, who is otherwise ready to be hung. If the player guesses the word before you draw all the body parts of the man, they win. If you draw all body parts, the man is “hung,” and the player loses. The post I saw asked us to “just think about it.” Just think about it – hanging a man is wrong! Some others said they played Snowman now.

Playing Hangman with my five year old. He was spelling out “Titanic.” Engagement, spelling, writing–yes, please!

Ok. I tried playing Snowman with my kids. They didn’t like it at all. What’s the point? There’s no need to beat the game if we’re just building a snowman. I also looked up the history of Hangman, to see if it was at all sinister. The history of Hangman seems vague, at best. At worst, it simply was developed during a time when hanging criminals was still common, something we in modern polite society would (probably) look down on. We can’t, however, really say it’s much different than now, when capital punishment is still performed, though differently.

So, I do child development work. I document the age-related “stages” children go through. It’s those times that children “act up” but on the other side is growth. See my work at the main page of my site, The Observant Mom. I do indeed document when children “act up,” but my work has taken me down many different avenues. One of those avenues I’ve been lead down is finding how many other factors seem to drive children’s development, ones other than mere “misbehavior.” To put it simply, there seems to be a host of behaviors, including major sleep disruptions, nightmares, fears, wild imagination, confusion, and physical growth, that coincide with the start of major mental development in children. It should be noted that these behaviors would not necessarily be seen as children “acting up” by adults, unless their sleep disruptions can be considered “difficult” behavior. Children otherwise might start talking about their wild imaginations or the fears they have. These would be seen by parents as rather mild behaviors–the chatter of children. But these subtle behaviors rather consistently kick off major mental development, in a cyclic fashion, occurring about every 2-3 months in child development.

It’s the fears that I want to focus on. Because I find it’s always there, at the beginning of major mental development, what I now call a “hill.” As I write this, my daughter, 8, recently told me that she had a nightmare that I was driving and then randomly got out of the van to “go to work” and she had to take over the driver’s wheel. Interestingly my oldest son, when he was nearly the same age, described a nightmare in which a tornado picked up our house and threw it 60 feet. These are very similar nightmares–and, wow, a lot for a child of just 8 to handle! Well, I assure you I would never just get out of the vehicle while I was driving. But let’s think of what these nightmares might do for a child. All of a sudden–they have to act! In a way that is more focused than anything they’ve done before. I find this kind of fear is present right before children go through a highly curious stage–one of children’s many “Why?” stages. Something seems to spook them, causing intense curiosity and focus.

I have read before, from a Jungian psychologist, that if you observe them in their sleep, snakes start twitching around. It’s as if they are dreaming about catching a mouse. This is the essence of Jungian psychology: we are born with archetypes, inherited from our ancestors. Archetypes are ancient memories that carry enormous emotional weight. Said archetypes might jar a snake that he has to learn how to catch a mouse–or else. It might give a gazelle nightmares about lions–preparing them for the reality they are about to enter. It seems to be no different for humans. My work shows children have roughly similar imaginations, sleep disturbances, and nightmares at fairly predictable age-related times. And my argument is these highly electrified fears or thoughts creep into them to drive a major portion of their mental, emotional, and social development. I find these fears are pretty quickly made up for with imagination, in which their own heroism can slay all these fears. But fear is present.

So, it makes sense to me that children love Hangman. It makes sense that it’s been a classic, for well over 100 years. And it makes sense to me that my children didn’t like Snowman whatsoever.

I describe these “hills” that children go through more thoroughly in my book series, Misbehavior is Growth. I have books out now for toddlers, threes, and fours. See my analysis of the hills five year olds go through at my blog, The Misbehavior and Growth of Five Year Olds.

Amber documents the age-related stages children go through. Send your friends and family to The Observant Mom.

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