Black Dolls Matter: Play therapy reduces anger and violence

By Mark Charles Hardie.


“Crazy Tyrone”–not his real name–was an infamous gang leader who was feared on the tough streets of Los Angeles. By the time Tyrone was twelve years old, he already had a vicious and bloody history along with a lengthy arrest record. When he reached adulthood, he was known as an “O.G.” or “original gangster” which is a respected label in the American ghetto. Tyrone was the type of guy that soccer moms in the suburbs are conditioned to avoid and fear.

Then one day his life changed forever.

It happened when “Crazy Tyrone” was hit by a Cadillac Escalade on Crenshaw Boulevard while he was tagging graffiti on a building. The impact of the accident thrust him into unconsciousness. Tyrone remained in a coma for nearly two months. When the gangster awoke from his coma, he was a changed man. His entire memory of being a gangster was completely erased.

This former criminal took on the innocence of a small child. He no longer engaged in crime or thug life. Instead, Tyrone began to spend his days and evenings playing with Barbie dolls, hand puppets, Lego building sets, and other toys. The unfortunate car accident returned this one-time gang banger to the innocence of a baby. What can we as a society learn from Tyrone’s remarkable transformation from sociopath to childlike tenderness?

When I viewed Tyrone playing with his Barbie dolls, I was inspired with a new and creative idea to help transform the hearts of hardened thugs and hooligans. I began to ask myself if childlike games and play therapy can help to heal our society from entrenched criminality. Today, the crime statistics are staggering and somewhat dramatic.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2013, an estimated 1,163,146 violent crimes occurred nationwide. Aggravated assaults accounted for 62.3 percent of violent crimes reported to law enforcement in 2013. Robbery offenses accounted for 29.7 percent of violent crime offenses; rape (legacy definition) accounted for 6.9 percent; and murder accounted for 1.2 percent. Although the FBI states that crime is on the decline, these statistics indicate that violent crime is still a major problem in the United States.

As Americans, we must ask ourselves the following poignant questions. What if arresting and incarcerating people is not the most effective way to reduce crime? What if play therapy and doll therapy are helpful approaches to reducing anger, lowering criminal intent, and healing the hearts of so-called gangsters and thugs?

In 1985, Dr Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D. started a company called Childswork/Childsplay to publish therapeutic board games, card games, puzzles, and therapy boards. These tools, along with dolls and doll houses, are used by many psychotherapists to help resolve both intrapersonal and interpersonal issues affecting their clients.

As a person raised in the harsh inner city, I know firsthand the terror, pain, desperation, and extreme poverty faced by millions of struggling people. I also know that arresting and incarcerating a person does not heal the heart and soul of the person. In fact, quite often prison inmates learn to become better criminals while they are locked away in prison. In the American prison population, a prisoner often <em>advances</em> from inmate to goon to convict to general. Too much of the focus of the prison system is placed on harsh punishment rather than rehabilitation and creating moral citizens.

Perhaps play therapy is one of the solutions to the crime issue. According to the Association of Play Therapy, there is a profound value in play and play therapy when practiced effectively with proper training, research, and support.

Instead of simply putting more Americans behind bars, perhaps we can use proven methods such as play therapy to heal the minds of criminal offenders. Guided by therapists trained in both psychology and criminology, potential marauders and inmates can act out their anger and frustration issues using toys rather than by committing crimes. It’s certainly more productive to work out one’s issues in play therapy rather than becoming a hoodlum and exploding in violence.

Perhaps innovative approaches are needed to increase public safety and social peace. Imagine an American society in which we focus on healing the criminal element rather than merely punishing them. Imagine if prison wardens were to provide play therapy to each inmate in both state and federal prisons. Imagine rehabilitating gang members rather than relegating them to the dark shadows of the rejected underclass.

The new Universal Pictures film “Straight Outta Compton” about the 1980s era gangster rap group <em>NWA</em> has spawned a new debate about violent music lyrics and crime in urban America. After viewing the film, I increased my efforts to provide psychotherapy to street hustlers. Even gangster rap music could focus more on creating honest, hardworking, and civic minded citizens rather than depicting wanton violence, misogyny, and hate-filled retaliation. Roughly translated, <em>NWA</em> means hoodlum with attitude. Instead of promoting gangsters with attitudes, we can focus on creating decent citizens with compassionate hearts.

In his “I have a dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Although many people fear crime, one must not lose hope and give in to despair. Instead we can use play therapy in order to change the minds and hearts of those people who live on the margins of society. In this way, we can reduce crime by creating compassion, responsibility, and good citizenship.

*The late “Crazy Tyrone” passed away many years ago. His name has been changed to protect his identity.

Crime statistics from FBI website:

Information regarding Dr. Lawrence Shapiro and play therapy:

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