Aggression in Young Children – Is It Always a Bad Thing?

Aggression in Young Children – Is It Always a Bad Thing?

Is aggression a bad thing?  Before you answer that question too quickly, it might be wise to take a closer look at the subject of aggression.  It is more complex than you might imagine.  We need to distinguish “instrumental” aggression from “hostile” aggression.  Instrumental aggression is employed in the pursuit of a goal.  Hostile aggression is employed specifically to hurt someone.

Let’s say some kids have been granted entrance into the gym.  They all rush in because they want to be the first to go down the slide.  As he is rushing through the door, one child knocks over another child.  That is instrumental aggression.  He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, he was just doing what he had to do to get through the door first.  Now the kids are climbing up the ladder to go down the slide.  One child turns and kicks another child in the head.  That is hostile aggression.  There was no reason for him to do that except to hurt the other child.

The fact is that in our culture, instrumental aggression is not only accepted, it is encouraged.  Someone goes into business and is an aggressive entrepreneur.  As he becomes a success, he puts a couple of his competitors into bankruptcy.  We do not condemn him for that.  He wasn’t out to hurt those people.  He was simply determined to become a success.  That others got hurt in the process, well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

A football player carrying the ball is running down the field.  A potential tackler approaches and he aggressively sticks his hand into the guy’s face – a classic “stiff arm” move.  We don’t boo, we cheer.  He’s wasn’t looking to hurt the guy, he was just trying to score a touchdown.  Now if he gets into the end zone then turns and kicks the other guy in the shins, we boo.  We definitely do not like hostile aggression.

Getting back to the young children, the kid who knocks over another child as he is rushing out the door should be duly chastised to be careful and to watch where he is going.  But you don’t come down on him as harshly as you do the kid on the ladder who kicked the other child for no other reason than to hurt him.  Instrumental aggression can be considered acceptable as long as it is employed judiciously and with appropriate caution.  Hostile aggression, on the other hand, should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

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