Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why My Boys Play with Guns

Front Yard Defensive Positions
O.k., clearly I mean toy guns. I do not have small children running around with loaded firearms. Not even I'm that distracted of a parent.

No, I'm talking about how we let our boys use imaginary/toy weapons in their pretend play. When our only child was a daughter, this was a non-issue. I'm not prepared to argue nature vs. nurture on the topic, but our reality was that our girl was the princess-iest princess you ever saw at the age of 4 and each one of our boys has turned a wrapping paper roll into a sword suddenly and without warning.

I am not all that girly of a girl and my husband, while a sports fanatic, is a pretty mild-mannered software consultant. I am not traipsing around in heels and pearls and he isn't walking through the living room with a rifle thrown over a shoulder. And yet our kids, especially between the ages of 3 and 6, have been some of the most sexist people on the planet. Everything is about what "boys" or "girls" do. Even when we explain that boys can wear whatever color they want or that girls can also be President (theoretically, thus far), they are still really interested in what they perceive to be boy or girl activities. In little boy world, that includes a lot of fighting bad guys.

At first I was kind of horrified. My sweet, lovable oldest boy began shooting at random things with his fingers. We did not own any kind of toy weapons (not even water guns) and the only TV he watched was on PBS. Where in the world did finger guns come from? I still don't know, but that really didn't turn out to be the point.

I had a few fears. I was worried that if they had toy guns they might mistake a real gun for a toy somewhere (a relative or friend's house) and think that seemed like a just another toy. I was worried that all this sword fighting and shooting bad guys might lead them to be overly aggressive or angry or...I don't know, mass-murder-y. I was worried that they would get in trouble at school for pretending to shoot someone.

After a while, and the addition of a couple more boys, I began to realize some answers to my fears. Weapons are going to be interesting to little boys whether or not I have any toy ones in the house. They imagine weapons out of everything.  If you look closely at the picture above you can see that the boys are armed with binoculars, a wiffle bat, and a lavender Little Tykes golf club. I needed to talk about gun safety even if I have no intention of ever owning a weapon because things that shoot projectiles are just inherently cool to most guys. Hence potato cannon competitions.

I became a lot less worried about raising crazy anti-social leaders of a private militia when I listened to how they play. They are always going after "bad guys." They pretend to be policemen or soldiers or "good pirates" (although I have explained that there is no such thing, they are brainwashed by Jake and the Neverland Pirates). I know that there are complex geo-political issues that prevent all soldiers from doing "good" work. I know that there are bad cops and systemic socio-economic disparities that are reinforced by some current methods of police work. But my boys don't know any of that.

They believe that "good" countries fight "good" wars and that because policemen are supposed to be the good guys, they are good men who do not make mistakes.  They will learn shades of gray as they age, but for now they are playing heroes. Just like they pretend to be the Green Lantern and the Flash, they pretend to rid the world of evildoers by arresting them or invading with tanks made out of cardboard boxes. Do I really want to discourage their desire to pursue justice?

Fortunately, my school fear has, so far, turned out to be not as big of a deal as I thought. My boys have been told not to play pretend guns at school. They don't really understand why, but they don't understand a lot of grown-up rules and so they accept it.

Policeman Self Portrait
One of my guys wants to be a policeman when he grows up (doesn't really suit his temperament, but I don't have the heart to tell him). His Kindergarten art project was to make a picture of himself dressed as his future career. You can see in his picture that he has handcuffs (green blob on the left), a nightstick (brown hot-dog thing), a walkie-talkie (green rectangle with dots on the right) and a jaunty hat. He did not paint a gun because "you can't have guns at school."  You also can't have toys at school, gum at school, or flip-flops at school. He just goes with it.

I realized that the bigger deal was how I respond to the "violence" they use in their play. I don't let them shoot at me, each other, or other random bystanders. I tell them that good guys should not shoot first (obviously that's an oversimplification, but they are little). Mostly, I tell them that we only use force to protect ourselves or someone who needs our help.

That's really the key and the reason I let them play like this at all--they are always pretending that they are protecting others. I don't want them starting fights or glorifying violence, but I absolutely want them to feel a responsibility to defend the weak and take care of those who cannot do it themselves.

These little boys will be men with resources and influence in our society. While most men don't use physical force in their daily lives, they do have opportunities to be heroes with their time, money, and political motives. They will have the chance to do justice often and I want them to believe that that's what heroes fight for.

I want my boys to believe they can BE those heroes with whatever tools they have in their arsenals--their votes, their dollars, and maybe even a wiffle bat.

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