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From the March, 2009
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Cops & Robbers by Robert Hart

Cops & Robbers

Robert Hart on Why a Boy Is a Terrible Thing to Arrest

In the dawn of time, when innocence reigned, a day was an age and a year was an epoch. My brother Addison was possessed of infinite wisdom, having reached the age of five when I was but three; and after many ages, he turned six, the age when he could begin a career of scholarship. When we created adventures, making up our own stories in the serious creative business of play, he knew what was appropriate, old and wise as he was.

So in our world where three cavemen had made both friends and enemies of talking dinosaurs (the most dangerous was the sinister being we called the Wild Triceratops), he knew that the prehistoric men were well-named Joe, John, and Jim. Why not? In the world of childhood, which truly may be called a world of its own, play is serious business. And the serious business of boys involves adventure, which in turn involves heroism in the face of danger, as good overcomes evil.

In those early years of long ages past, we did fight many a villain, and we slew untold numbers of monsters. It was a dangerous world, and we were men of action. Never were we the bad guys, however. Either we were Robin Hood and Little John, or policemen catching criminals, or knights fighting dragons. Or we were cavemen battling the Wild Triceratops.

When my son David was a little child, he invented a superhero of his own. As he sat on my lap one day, he informed me that his superhero (play-acted exclusively by his young creator) was fighting evil by killing the bad guys whenever he saw them. So I thought to correct his approach. I thought that maybe he was not too young to learn a basic principle of law and justice, the presumption of innocence.

“How can this hero of yours tell that someone is a bad guy just by looking at him?”

David’s expression turned very serious; he was obviously pondering my question as far as a little boy could. Then he answered: “He has really good eyesight.”

Innate Moral Sense

At a very early age boys will, in their imagined scenarios, battle monsters and evil men, and their play will sound violent. You may take away toy swords and guns, but their imaginations will compensate with everything from sticks to empty paper-towel rolls. They will vanquish evil because it is evil, and no intervention in the name of a general deprecation of violence can be interposed without causing harm to the development of their ethical and moral sense. In their simplistic world of early childhood, this is how good overcomes evil.

It is necessary to help this moral sense develop, not to stamp it out. True, it can be perverted into hatred of others as symbols of evil, the way some Muslim children are trained to hate all Jews. Prejudice and hatred can be fashioned by perverting a child’s moral sense, and this has been done all too often throughout history. It is a delicate matter, as delicate as the weakness of childhood.

Hatred of this kind can grow in the life of a bigot to such a point that he mistakes his sin for a virtue. The bigot feels morally justified, if not superior, because he hates the right people. And yet it is the same moral sense, so easily manipulated and twisted in childhood, that can and should be properly developed to create the very opposite: a wise understanding of justice, tempered with mercy, and believed in passionately.

But to stamp out the early expression of this moral sense because it appears to be violent and simplistic in little boys is to waste a valuable resource. It is necessary to recognize this sense as a God-given tool that prepares boys to be protectors, to be leaders, and to be brave.

Serious Play

The combination of a developed moral sense with courage, that is, with the willingness to act heroically if necessary, begins in the playroom. It begins with the identification of imaginary monsters who need to be killed because they are evil, and in doing evil make themselves dangerous.

It is necessary for Christians to help foster the growth of the moral sense that boys embrace as a struggle, and to guide its growth with reason and with genuine teaching about right and wrong. It will take ages and epochs, some lasting whole months, for the simplistic nature of their moral understanding to develop and mature, but it can grow if properly guided. (It took a few days, that is, a couple of ages, but my son’s hero decided to change his goal from killing the bad guys into capturing them with the intention of bringing them to trial.)

If, however, a boy’s moral sense is squashed early on, and his play robbed of all fight, there may be nothing left to develop, not even a conscience.

In other words, let your sons play with guns and swords. They have serious play to do in the struggle between good and evil, and someday they will live in an adult world that needs manly men of conscience, without whose actions evil will always prevail.


Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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“Cops & Robbers” first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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