“You Be the Monster!” The Importance of Playing with Fear

king kong

It begins with a simple 5-beat clap; a percussive call to what the kids call the RUNNING GAME. You cannot say those two words quietly. It is always shouted or crowed or yelped when they hear the opening clap. Two-year-old Poppie and four-year-old Finn race upstairs to the long hallway where I sit with my back against the wall and they, well, RUN. I holler out an impromptu rap-clap while they dash up and down the hall (Running game running game, there they go, they always go fast, they NEVER go slow….) It is great galloping breathless fun, but their favorite favorite favorite part is when Finn says to his mama You be the monster and she agrees. She crouches down on all fours hidden in a doorway and when the kids race by she roars her terrible roar and flings out her terrible claws to catch them, but she never does–the kids are too fast, too tricky. The Mother-monster is frightening, enthralling. She is the best part of the game.

All people are vulnerable to the monsters in life: health issues, money problems, death, betrayals and violence. Kids, particularly two to five-year-olds, just have a harder time articulating those fears, and this is where monster-play comes in. It is practice dealing with the developmental issues that plague them: separation anxiety, helplessness, and hostility. Overcoming the monster–being too fast or tricky for it–allows a child to experience a measure of power over unseen and undefined terrors. It is an intoxicating feeling to escape the clutch of the dragon breathing the hot breath of abandonment down our neck. When it is defeated resiliency rises, a hero is born.

We all need monsters to define ourselves against, for it is by conquering them that we move from victim to victor, from helplessness to courage. No beasts, no bravery.
The lawless nature of a monster asks for laws, asks what inner weapons we shall seize to defeat them–questions we adults ask, or should ask, ourselves into a meaningful life.

You be the monster, the children demand from the playful adults in their lives, the ones who know how to roar and miss the plump child they long to devour. Catch me! The children call from backyards and kitchens and vacant lots. And if we are wise we will allow them to rehearse the unstoppable, the powerful, the inhuman threat to well-being; we will invite the monster in and then let them run as fast as the wind.


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  1. So… should we not catch them and tickle them to show them that the monsters aren’t really that scary? Or is that just a separate game? I personally remember thinking I was so fast at age 5 that kidnappers had no chance with me. All the grownups I knew were too “old” and couldn’t keep up with us kids (I’m sure this was partly true, and had probably been said a few hundred times). Of course, when I said this to my mom she showed me that even she could run faster than me, she just usually chose not to. It helped me have a healthy respect for adults, and perhaps a healthy fear of kidnappers.

    • Great comment! Don’t catch them, but make a mighty effort to. If you neutralize the monster, you neutralize the heroic journey of escape. BUT sometimes kids are irresistibly catchable and then you will know holding and tickling is what they really really want.

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