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Ready, aim…

January 6, 2011

For two years and counting, Jack has demonstrated several consistent and pretty pronounced interests in lots of things that interest his parents. He loves to play music, and between us, his grandparents, aunts and uncles he knows bandleaders, pianists, guitarists, drummers and more. He loves to hammer and saw and pretend to use the Sawzall and drill, having watched them all work at his house since birth.  He likes maps, which we still use all the time to get directions and make plans, and loves the atlas and United States puzzle he found under the tree a couple of weeks ago. He loves to help me cook almost as much as he likes to help Don build, loves reading as much as both of us.

These top a long, long list of logical and ‘what toddler doesn’t?’ kinds of loves – rescue vehicles, football helmets, tractors, dancing, animals of all kinds – play that’s cute and imaginative, fun to watch and to nurture.

And then there are the guns. For a long time I thought there weren’t any at our house, toy or otherwise. But there are plenty, in drill bits and drumsticks, pieces of plastic hose and big kitchen spatulas. And now one water pistol, which he discovered couple of months ago he found among old toys at his grandparents’ house. I called it a water pistol, too, avoiding saying “gun” to a silly extent. The worst came around Halloween, when we took Jack to his favorite restaurant and the waitstaff served in costume. One dressed in camo fatigues and carried a rifle over her shoulder, and when Jack asked what she was carrying, I called it a “hunting tool.” That drew stares and eye rolls from nearby tables, and I finally decided to think beyond synonyms to what I was worried about and whether I could do anything about it.

My family generally considers itself Quaker, but I grew up around guns and hunters – my dad, for one, and a big group of friends who came to deer camp at our barn every fall. As kids we played with cap guns and eventually had target practice with real ones. My little brother had a BB gun.

There were no real guns around my husband’s childhood home. His parents are afraid of guns, but they were cool with classic cowboy play; Don and his brother were allowed to play with toy pistols and encouraged to watch John Wayne movies, but they weren’t allowed to have Super Soakers, the popular pressurized water guns, which looked to their parents like  modern automatic weapons.

My toy gun control came early and automatically, along with Jack’s exposure to plastic weapons at birthday parties and visits with older cousins. But what do you do, boycott? Whisk him away? Or, like me, stand wide-eyed and helpless as your toddler gets an introduction to toy guns and later try to hide their existence by spelling G-U-N and using ridiculous euphemisms?

I’m not crazy about Jack going crazy for guns because I associate them with violence. But he doesn’t – not yet – and I think that’s a good thing. He knows that real guns are dangerous and that “Grandpa Keith uses them to shoot animals to get meat.” And I think that’s plenty of reality for a not-quite-three-year-old, who has sensed enough in our hesitation to create his own version of gun safety. He tells us he’s playing with pretend guns. He doesn’t aim at people, and if anyone asks he’ll usually say he’s shooting water.

When I wrote almost a year ago about my fears about toddlers gun play, my friend Stacia recommended an interesting piece from The Washington Post: “My Boys Like Shootouts. What’s wrong with that?.” My worries came a little too soon then, but I’ve revisited that article many times in the past several weeks. I still think a third birthday party overflowing with toy guns is cringeworthy, and though I can clearly remember the innocent fun of cap and water and Nerf guns, gunplay will probably never be high my list of fun ways to be imaginative with Jack. But the idea that toy gun-friendly families have been shunned – shunned! – at parks and parades (read the article!) is harder for me to stomach.

So I’m relaxing. Playing it by ear and remembering the innocence of my son’s play. I can keep him from watching action movies – heck, he only gets to see PBS –  but I can’t take inventory of all of our friends’ and relatives’ toy boxes, and I’m okay with it. I find relief in that flexibility, in the reminder of our limits of control.

Where do you stand on toy gun control? If we parents introduce the gravity of violence to child’s play, do we make it all less innocent? If you show up at the park or a party to see gunplay, do you turn right around or chalk it up to life, happening?

This post is part of Amber’s Non-Judgmental Parenting project, which encourages us to share proud moments of parenting and to choose encouragement and thoughtfulness over judgment.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 6:30 pm

    Leslie–you are so wise. I am terrified of guns and completely sympathize with your position. At the same time, kids play is imaginative. I don’t quite understand their fascination with all things weaponry, but it must have its reasons. I mean, most kids pretend play with guns no matter how pacifist their parents are! (My sisters and I loved to play war.) I think the direction you are leading Jack is perfect. You are guiding him, teaching him, and learning from him. That’s what is important.

    • January 8, 2011 4:31 pm

      Amber, I needed to hear that – not about my being wise (PuhLease – and thank you!) but the realistic reminder that most kids wage imaginary battles that are nothing more than pretend play.

  2. January 6, 2011 7:04 pm

    I too have referred to that article on many occasions. In fact it sparked an overall rethink about how I parent my children via symbols and stereotypes. By compelling my boys to use specific language and trying to shelter them from things I feel inappropriate, I suppose in a way I’m doing my own kind of stereotyping. Perhaps that’s what parenthood is about, but I am trying to think more rationally about those kind of worries. To realize that they need to do some exploring of their own, and that the balance will come in the values I instill. At least I hope.

  3. January 6, 2011 7:26 pm

    We haven’t ever bought toy weapons for our boys, but, like yours, our house is filled with baseball bat swords and toy hammer guns. My older son (still only 3) stages epic battles between his stuffed animals and Toy Story guys. And what’s a mom to do? I don’t stop him, and, when I have intervened, it only seems to encourage him to battle all the more loudly.

    Mostly I, like Christine, hope that the combination of the messages we send him through our words and actions and his own curiosity about weapons will still form a generally peaceful, ethical kid. I hope.

    And now off to read that Washington Post article. Thanks to you and Stacia for the tip.

  4. January 6, 2011 10:05 pm

    It took me 9 years to allow my son a real toy gun … but he made them out of anything he could find, including his fingers. My daughter does it, too. I guess they made guns into toys for a reason.

    I resisted it because I resist guns, weapons, in general. However, I’ve learned through my actions that the more stress I place around a thing, the more important it grows in everyone’s mind. My new philosophy is to relax and see what happens. So far so good.

  5. January 7, 2011 12:38 am

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this. I really worry about this. A friend of mine whose boy got really into guns said she decided not to fight it, even though she felt uncomfortable. Apparently, fighting it makes them want them more. (Of course.) But recently, Mr. B took a liking to the Wii fencing that we got for Christmas. I really feel icky about it–he has to fight until he knocks someone into the water, and he really likes doing it. Am I doing a disservice to my child by letting him play this? After I saw it, I put an end to it and he hasn’t played for a couple of days, but I could be making a bigger deal about it than necessary.


    • January 8, 2011 4:11 pm

      That’s exactly where I’m coming from, Jana. It’s fun competition for them, but for us, when the object of the game is to ‘get’ somebody, the play loses its innocence. But sticking to games where the getting involves knocking someone into water seems like a healthier kind of competition than gunfire, right? And when Jack shoots water or the floor, there’s not yet even a bad guy involved – not yet. Their interest in play swords and guns seems almost instinctual (like my interest in curbing it!). For now I’m just trying to keep the context fun and simple.

  6. January 7, 2011 5:28 pm

    I just read something about needing to ask fellow parents if they have guns in their house and if they’re locked up, separated from the bullets, etc., when your kid goes somewhere else to play. Of course the article was brought about by a tragedy where one mom didn’t ask, the kids found a gun, and one child was killed. What kind of world do we live in where this is part of a mother’s job description, where it can’t be assumed that other parents are responsible for the weapons in their own house? Scares me to pieces.

    But I agree with all the comments here. Restricting them makes them more interesting and more likely that children will seek them out. It’s a terrible Catch-22, like so many things in parenting. You have to teach them well and set them free. Why does that sound so easy??

    PS: Thanks for the shout-out. Glad that article is still a good reference for you!

    • January 8, 2011 3:39 pm

      Real guns are scary on an entirely different level that I am so not ready to deal with. But in our parts (maybe in everyone’s, anymore? I don’t know) lots of families keep guns in their homes. And a couple of months ago, a group of women that work in my building made a weekend out of getting their conceal + carry permits! Knowing whether your child is going to be proximate to firearms is a big deal. I want to think that most adults keep them responsibly unloaded and put away – but maybe more important is the extent of their children’s understanding of guns, their capabilities and how they work.

      • January 8, 2011 7:00 pm

        With girls, it seems different. But in preschool, Grace got into ‘gun fights’ with her fingers – pow pow. That I accept. We also have played with water guns, but they are no where near realistic looking. That is a line I feel strongly about.

        Growing up, played with water pistols, and certainly had epic battles, but it involved a lot more words than weapons. There were no guns in my childhood house, nor do we have guns in our house. We talk about hunting- her favorite cousin hunts- and guns a little. I need to do more to teach safety though. Not pointing even toy guns at people is great.

        The realty that many homes have guns in them is a scary one to me. But, I’ve always had the pleasure of joining Grace and Joy on play dates. Until recently. Yes, I know the families and have been to their houses before. I’m not sure how to have a conversation with a newly met mom- do you have guns in your house? Still, I sat down and talked with Grace about guns. If you see a gun, you leave the room and go find an adult.

  7. January 8, 2011 8:24 pm

    Kristen linked to the article on her site, and when I read it, I totally understood the writer’s parental perspective. With two sons, though I wouldn’t buy toy guns, they would fashion weaponry out of sticks in the backyard, swords out of empty rolls of wrapping paper or broom handles or anything else. Play fighting.

    I relented at a certain point (age 5? age 6?) – and allowed them water guns which got plenty of use in summertime.

    My sons are older now, and certainly don’t have particularly violent inclinations. Nor do we have guns.

    I have no good answers on this one. Look at the horrifying news just today, in Arizona.

  8. January 11, 2011 5:02 am

    This topic is certainly worth discussing and compelling to write about. I am glad you are talking about it Leslie. I have a little girl, but don’t allow her to play with plastic guns. When my MIL bought her water bubble gun, I hid it. In the last year, I know of three young men who decided to commit suicide with guns. Like BLW, I have no answers either, but know that as moms we can guide our children by educating them to the best of our ability.

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