Why is it that children seem to pick up and mimic even the tiniest examples violence on TV?

It's like a golden beacon of what not to do and they seem to be just magnetized towards it.

Let me try to give an example.

I know a younger child in the 4-6 age range. They watched Wreck it Ralph and immediately started bopping everything and everyone he can with anything he can and repeating "I'm wrecking you." Why is this the take away from the movie? There are plenty of other activities going on but the kid chooses the hitting other people activity.

A friend of the family (this was a couple of years ago) had issues with older boys maybe 8 and 11 ish in age. The dad likes to watch pro wrestling (like WWE) and at EVERY opportunity those boys would be body slamming each other and any other kid they could. And I mean these were some heavier boys who were slamming all sized of kids by leaping off the couch at full speed. No amount of explaining that wrestling on TV is an act, that these are trained professionals or do it again and you're grounded would make them stop. They finally had to stop watching wrestling all together, it was really a big issue; which is odd to me because I thought at that age they could reasoned with.

I can't even tell you how many times I've been "Hi ya"ed or karate chopped by kids mimicking ninja turtles / super heroes, not to mention how many times I've been pretend-shot by kids pretending to have a gun.

Why is violent play so attractive to young children? I know the wrestling example is kind of a "well dua they see it on TV" moment but why couldn't a 10 year old grasp the concept of falling on and hurting someone smaller? And what about the 4 year old that suddenly starts hitting everything with a pretend mallet?

Before being around kids, most of this TV/media didn't even strike me as violent and now I see kids pick up on these things in shows that I would have never thought about censoring before.

  • 16
    Don't worry, they tend to even out by age 30 or so. Thing to remember is these are just the traits you are noticing. Kids take it all in, every little bit. The pleasantries are easily overlooked because they don't irritate you.
    – Kai Qing
    Oct 20, 2015 at 21:26
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    I'd hypothesize that it's to the fact that movies & TV are very stimulating, which creates a need for the children to release that pent up energy. Given that they've just learned new ways to be physically active, and are excited about that, they release it using those methods (which happen to be violent). We also notice this learned behavior more easily, because it's more obvious! But the kids will learn language, roles, songs, etc., from shows, it's just not readily visible that they've done so. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to go about verifying this.
    – user11394
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:12
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    Everything they see is made by adults. One might ask why humans in general are so enraptured by violence.
    – Mazura
    Oct 21, 2015 at 2:45
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    I think there is quite a bit of bias in your question. Have you kept a tally of when you've seen a kid pick up any behavior from TV, and found out that violent or otherwise inappropriate behavior is more frequently picked up? Or did you just notice it once and then continued noticing examples for it? Our brains are wired to work the second way, cherry picking evidence for our theory, even if it turns out that what you observe is not especially notable. In this case, it can be that they imitate all other kinds of behavior too, and you only notice the violence because it bugs you.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 21, 2015 at 7:44
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    "Why is violent play so attractive to young children?" Have you seen some of the ways that other mammals play? Oct 21, 2015 at 15:11

9 Answers 9


Kids, just like adults, want to "be cool", to have fun and to have something they can share with their friends. TV, video games, pro wrestling, whatever. And the parts they want to talk about/reenact are going to be the ones that they find most fun or exciting.

Think back to the last action movie you saw (for me it was probably Avengers or something similar). If you got to reenact any scene from the movie, what would you want to do? The scene where two characters stand in a room and talk for a couple of minutes? Or the one where Iron Man and Thor are flying around, dodging lasers and shooting aliens? If it were me, I'd want to pretend to blow stuff up, because it's fun and exciting. Standing around and talking? That's normal and I do it every day. Why would I want to spend my play time doing something boring I do all the time?

In addition, kids learn by repetition. As I recall from Wreck-It Ralph, things got bopped a lot. Its no surprise that a small child would pick up on the bopping over, say, the nice moral of the story. The four year olds I've known couldn't pay attention long enough (and probably didn't care enough) to follow the whole story of an hour and a half movie. They probably can't pick up on little intricacies and all the other little details that makes stories interesting to adults. They remember the big things and the things that happened a lot. For example, I can't remember all the details of the Looney Toons I watched growing up. But I do remember Wile E. Coyote getting nailed by countless anvils, boulders, etc.

As far as taking it a bit too far, you have to remember that while 11 year olds are old enough to reason with and in many ways act like small adults, they aren't adults. Their brains haven't matured like yours and mine. They don't have nearly the amount of life experience we do. But they are at least (and probably more so) as susceptible to getting "caught up in the moment" as we are. And that's when the body slams happen. When we start doing things like that we (hopefully) have a red flag or three fly up and say "woah, slow down chief". We (at least partially) got that from experience, by screwing up and learning from our mistakes. Kids haven't made those mistakes yet and don't have that automatic warning system built in.

Also, as adults, we have the mental capabilities to separate reality from fantasy. We know that bullets and body slams hurt. We also know that pro wrestling is staged. Kids don't fully grasp that. And even when they sorta do, they think "well, I just saw two huge guys jump on each other and no one got hurt. I can do that too." They (and sometimes adults too) overestimate their abilities and underestimate the potential damage. And then reality usually takes effect and administers nasty surprises to everyone involved.

To sum up, they are just being kids and want to have fun doing exciting things. And they haven't messed up enough yet to know when actions are potentially going do lead to undesirable consequences.

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    Excellent points! My wife has ADHD and is very impulsive. She still has trouble with some of these things that we normally ascribe to children. For example, play karate chopping someone with full force without thinking about the consequences. She knows logically and experientially that this is not proper, but the action is executed before experience or reason has a chance to process. Oct 20, 2015 at 19:05
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    Pro Wrestling is STAGED?!?! :P
    – Robotnik
    Oct 21, 2015 at 2:36
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    So what? You're next gonna tell me there is no cake?!
    – Nelson
    Oct 22, 2015 at 6:31
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    +1 for "They probably can't pick up on little intricacies and all the other little details... They remember the big things and the things that happened a lot." - maybe worth highlighting?
    – Michael
    Oct 22, 2015 at 10:26

Violence and play fighting is an innate aspect of human behaviour.

You can observe animals play fighting as well.

Domestically, you can observe cats and dogs play fight, more commonly as juveniles.

Our closest animal relative, chimps, are also known to wrestle and play chase.

I don't believe the desire to play fight is mimicked from television (what television do lion cubs watch?). Television might however, provide inspiration for a type of play.

Anecdotally - I play fought and wrestled with my two brothers a lot as a child, and had a lot of fun doing it. (Much to our mother's chagrin - though she was more concerned about the noise we were making than us hurting each other). It's a good workout, involves tactile stimulation and is a good challenge, especially when your older brother is bigger and stronger than you.

I think you need to seperate your concerns:

  • The play fighting - which in my opinion is an acceptable form of child's play, and confers all the advantages of social interaction, physical activity, stimulation, finding boundaries etc.

  • The risk of seriously hurting each other, or anti-social pestering - Some activity isn't socially acceptable. For example running up to and randomly hitting someone isn't acceptable, and that needs to be pointed out. But in the context where everybody is enjoying themselves and no one is being hurt, and I'd allow it and even encourage it. Play fighting is fun.

  • Why is kids picking up on 'inappropriate behavior' appropriate?

"The social group basically polices itself and enforces the rules of social dominance, the social mores of the troupe, and monkeys who don't pay attention to those rules -who are overly aggressive in their interactions- don't last in that troupe very long. They're kicked out of the troupe. They go solitary and most of them don't survive." –Steven Suomi, Origins of Human Aggression, YouTube

Paraphrased, if not outright stolen, content:

Play fighting is as natural in humans as it is in other animals, but guardians often forbid it, because they see in play fighting disturbing signs of violence. It is however, extremely useful to a child's development.

"By competing physically with others, the child discovers who is stronger, where each person's limits are, and whether aggressive acts are acceptable. Play fighting also requires compromises. The strongest must learn to let other partners win from time to time, or they will find themselves without playmates. In fact, as shocking as it may seem, play fighting apparently teaches youngsters to control their aggressive behavior."

The desire and pleasure of being part of the group, forces a child's brain to develop ways of regulating anger. "Discipline plays a vital role in eliminating aggressive behavior" and is beyond the scope of this question, but it is expertly discussed in the video. Preventing the recurrence of this behavior through discipline is much more desirable then the solutions that are commonly used for those of older age, and usually as a last resort:

Removal or 'special placement' of individuals with aggressive behavior has disastrous consequences. "They never learn desirable social behaviors and even worse, by a sort of mutual contamination, encourage one another to maintain their violent behavior."

"Children who fail to learn alternatives to physical aggression during the preschool years have many problems." - Think long and hard about, how or of what you "censor" for your children. Above all, be consistent and never divide the parental unit (play fighting aside, I can only assume WWF-dad wasn't helping the coherency of the unit).


My gut feeling: three mechanisms combined.

  1. Monkey see, monkey do
    Children learn via observation. A lot. If this weren't true, we could never teach by example and have to explain in detail whatever we want them to do. This is true for the rules of interactive play as well. In your question you mention TV action heroes, but there are hundreds of little (disney) princesses, sports stars, singers and other "celebrities" impersonators in families around the world. The fact that action heroes are typically preferred over, say, novelists and insurance agents (random example) ist that because most children want to be "strong" or "powerful" and "special" in their play instead of nondescript and ho-hum.

  2. Children (partly) live in a fantasy world
    Especially younger children can immerse themselves in their play - the boundaries between real world and real objects and the imaginary world are blurred. Most toys work because of that. Else no doll could be a baby and no stick a sword.

  3. Boundaries need stretching
    Assume that children know right from wrong. They typically know what they are supposed to do. And these rules are something that provides a sense of security.
    But the more you are allowed and able to do, the more freedom you typically get. And this is where boundaries are stretched. Both in a physical sense (how far are we allowed to wander from our parents' reach) and figuratively. A good and normal process in the innumerable stages of growing up.

So combine the allure of a "I am strong" game with the "I stretch my boundaries because I'm strong" and you have your little wannabe-wrestler that repeatedly jumps from the couch and the wrecking mini-ralph that goes after your home.

Be glad if your children do that while they are young and let's hope that once they are old enough to get really in trouble they have outgrown the need to re-enact "The Fast and the Furious" with mom's minivan.

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    Fast and the Furious 42 - Middle Aged and Board!!! All drivers are soccer moms in mini vans who street race after dropping the kids off a day care.
    – user7678
    Oct 20, 2015 at 18:25
  • @RachelC - absolutely brilliant.
    – user16557
    Oct 21, 2015 at 13:19

I think the fundamental assumption of this question is wrong, the examples given are not violent behaviour, just physical emulation. Violence is defined as:

Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.

After watching Wreck It Ralph, my son (who was under 2 at the time) also starting tapping everything with play hammers - not with the intention of hurting anyone - just mimicking a repeated and memorable element of the film. Children (especially younger ones) aren't going to memorise complex quotes, even if they understand them - but they will pick up on repeated words and phrases. The "Hi yaa!" accompanying the Karate chop is one such example.

Some of this physical mimicking may (have the potential to) hurt other children. In those cases, educate your child that their action hurts and that they either need to be more careful / gentle or stop completely. Most children I've encountered copying a film or TV show will adjust their behaviour when they realize what they are doing is hurting their playmate, parent or carer.

I'd also classify rough play and play-fighting as non violent. There are many (healthy) reasons why children do this. It's a topic that has been covered extensively, so I won't duplicate it here.

Finally, if a child actually starts trying to hurt other people after watching a film or TV show, this is an entirely separate issue. Taking away the source of their inspiration may limit their violent "creativity", but probably won't remove the behavioural trait. This needs to be addressed just as you would for any violent child - but again, that's widely discussed and beyond the scope of this question.


Lets assume cartoon do stimulate unwanted behavior.

As a child I saw Tarzan almost naked, Cinderella arrived home after midnight, Pinocchio told lies, Aladdin was a thief, Batman drove over 200 miles an hour, Snow White lived in a house with 7 men, Popeye smoked a pipe and had tattoos, Pac Man ran around to digital music while eating pills that enhanced his performance, and Shaggy and Scooby were mystery solving hippies that always had the munchies.

So if cartoons stimulate or lead to violence I am surprised that the world is not filled with more raving madmen. I turned out OK I think and so did most of my friends.

Boys in particular get brought up with the notion that they will grow up to be a man which implies that they will be a protector/defender. Thus they probably identify and emulate behavior that in their limited understanding gives them the ability assert those ideas. Remember kids are quite keen on fairy tales were the blood of evil doers get spilled.

Most of the violent grown ups I have dealt with had emotional and physical abuse at home and generally did not watch much cartoons. Domestic violence and mental/emotional abuse are much more insidious than Tom getting hit over the head by Jerry.

To place this into perspective more than 50% of the worlds population live in places where human rights abuses and violence is used an a form of the ultimate authority. There are a lot more children learning how to be violent in those places than the few that go complete Batman from Saturday morning cartoons. Children will emulate things that find funny or cool but they learn from the behavior of their parents, peers and the society and world around them.

  • Thanks for the great answer. It helped me. Jun 1, 2020 at 3:37

Because Humans have evolved to survive in a violent and dangerous environment

Why do baby lions fight each other? They're practicing. They need to get good at fighting or when they are older they will die.

Humans are the apex predator on this planet. We fight, we kill each other, we kill other animals in very large quantities, sometimes just for sport. It's in our nature.

Like it or not, your children are built to fight, hunt prey, and defend territory.

Humans are not blank slates

We humans are not simple Pavlovian/Skinnerian stimulus-response machines. We have - in some mysterious way - agency. We get to choose what we look at and imitate, and not all environmental stimuli are equally interesting.

Somehow we come out pre-wired to seek out stimuli that are interesting and useful. For example:

  • The first time my little girl saw a sportscar she absolutely loved it. She climbs high walls for fun and jumps off. I don't wish to label her, but she appears to be a thrill seeker.
  • My little boy on the other hand really loves the inside of machines. He's a tinkerer. I can't explain why, he just seems to have this natural proclivity.

I would conjecture that these are both evolutionarily beneficial survival traits. They appear - in some interesting way I can't fathom - to be hardwired into them.

Fighting gives us the ability to defend ourselves from other humans or animals, and to hunt prey for food. It's only natural that we would come out wired in such a way as to be interested in it.


Not necessarily backed by anything other than assumption and observation (yeah, good job keeping it scientific on SE) but I really like the idea that it's because violence is a form of agency.

Children aren't allowed to control many parts of their life. A lot of the time, they don't even know what that would entail. But being violent, or forcing your presence on someone could very well be seen as a way for them to posit themselves as the leader of interaction. This is usually not something they are afforded.

Anecdotal evidence be damned, but I definitely remember that being an arse to my uncle and playing pranks on the guy when I was eight years old was justified in that I could get a funny reaction from him - I never cared how it made him felt, just that I could get a consistent and entertaining response.

  • 1
    Could you tone down your answer a notch or two, please? I assume you are intending to be witty and sarcastic, but frankly, as this is an international site, not all readers might "get" it. You have a few good points in your answer. Welcome!
    – Stephie
    Oct 23, 2015 at 12:44
  • I feel the anecdotal evidence is really helpful. I have a few behaviors that I did as a child that I'm now realizing WHY (they were a developmental stage) I was doing them now that I look back. It helps me understand whats going through kids heads.
    – user7678
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:17

I suspect that at least part of it is that those are the actions that generate reactions in the shows/movies. Those are often the big laugh lines or cringe moments or similar. If one is seeking to get a big affect from their own actions, copy the things that get the biggest reaction elsewhere.

The reactions need not be positive to be noticeable, though in cartoons violence often goes hand-in-hand with laughter.

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