Joanna Schroeder, a mother of two active boys, confides that she lets her kids play with toy guns.
When our first son was born, my husband and I knew we’d have to face the big “G” someday: guns. We had this sweet little angel in our arms, and even though it had happened a few years earlier, Columbine was still fresh in our minds. Suddenly, the connection between all humans became apparent. They had all been babies. They had all been born like our son—tiny, wrinkled, pink and helpless, with eyes that wouldn’t focus. Our son, at the time, had no personality yet, no demons, no vices, no bad habits. How does it go so wrong that two boys could shoot and kill their classmates and teachers without flinching?
What could push those boys to such senseless horror, and how could we, as new parents, prevent our kids from joining their ranks? Looking at our own little swaddled blob of nursling it seemed like we could do it—we could shelter him from all the evil of the world. Teach him to grow up kind, thoughtful, considerate and to shun violence. Even from the first weeks of his life, we decided that he wouldn’t have guns—water guns would be okay as long as they were brightly colored—and we wouldn’t call them guns, we would call them “blasters”.
Yeah, so that lasted like 2 years. Maybe less. As I’ve written before, our oldest son has a kind and gentle soul and loves animals. But it didn’t take long for him to somehow discover that a bent stick makes a great gun. I don’t know where the sounds came from, but soon “boom!” and “pow!” and “bang!” and even that distinct laser-gun sound one can’t quite turn into a word, even using onomatopoeia, followed the imaginary firings of the banana guns and stick rifles.
“No shooting,” I would say, nicely, and take away the stick away from my son.
“Stick!” Izz would cry back at me.
“Okay, but no shooting. No guns.” Dammit, I’d said the word. Gun…
“Gun!” he said, finally finding the right word for this stick. “Mom, give me gun. Peeeazzze?”
I handed it back to him, feeling myself giving in to what, at that moment, seemed inevitable. “Okay, but listen. This is pretend. No pointing it at people or animals, okay?”
He was fine with that. And I was okay with it. Imaginary guns seemed inevitable, and I couldn’t shield him from the word “gun” forever, could I?
Fast forward 6 or 7 years, and add one brother. The gun thing has taken over. These boys have an arsenal of toy weapons I could never have comprehended. They still don’t have “realistic” looking guns. Nothing of glossy fake wood, or black plastic. No real-life BB guns or pocket knives (despite the pleading). Just a lot of Nerf and Exploderz. They aim at each other with these types of guns, and they pretend to die, and they say, “You’re dead! I killed you!” and it breaks my heart. This doesn’t seem right, this can’t be right. What am I doing? How have I failed?
But I really don’t think I’ve failed. This is imagination play and I think it’s about a number of different things:
First, I think these war-games are about organization and competition. In these games, there’s a “good guy” and a “bad guy” and often there is a map and strategy. The teams of shooters cooperate to accomplish a pre-defined goal, and all the players work together to set up rules and boundaries ahead of time. In this world, my 5 year-old can sneak up behind his 10 year-old pal and actually win the game. That’s a pretty unique situation.
Second, guns are gadgets. Nerf guns and water guns have advanced in technology quite dramatically since most of us were kids. They have sights, high-capacity magazines, laser beams and other features. This all seems ominous to those of us who see these accessories as part and parcel of the worship of assault-style weapons, but to a little kid it’s just “cool stuff that does stuff”. A soccer ball doesn’t have accessories or gadgets, neither does a deck of cards. It’s the accessory-and-gadget factor that also makes them like Legos and BeyBlades and Bakugan and other toys marketed at boys.
Third, the toy gun facilitates a child’s fantasy of being able to protect himself and his family. My father, who was a war-protesting Conscientious Objector during Vietnam, tells the story of the time he finally gave in and bought my brother a BB gun. My brother claimed to want it to shoot targets, but finally explained that he wanted to be able to protect his mom and sister.
Fantasies about self-protection and the protection of those you love is a major theme in masculinity, as far as I can determine. When Reddit ran an open thread asking men what things all guys do, one of the most prominent themes was fantasizing about, or planning for the protection of the man’s family:
“When I’m in the shower, I day dream about criminals breaking into my home to harm my family and how I would be a hero and… kill all the bad guys. I’m an adult man and have been doing this since forever.”
“Fantasize of the scenario of how you’d stylishly disarm, ninja-fight, and incapacitate the crazy gunman that just took over your office/classroom/crowded place, while everyone watches and all the women visibly swoon over your manliness.”
I realized this was true when I was reminding my kids what to do if someone grabs them: “Scream ‘STRANGER’ and kick and bite, and go limp. You can do anything you want to someone who is trying to hurt you. As soon as you’re free you run away as fast as you can to where other grown ups can help you.”
My son looked at me and said, very seriously, “this is why I need a pocket knife. I’ve been telling you for years that I need a pocket knife, since you won’t buy me a BB gun.”
It is inescapable logic, even if I still won’t buy him a pocket knife. Of course they want to protect themselves, and their toy guns are a means of practicing that. Their imaginary picking-off of bad guys in the back yard is a way for them to feel safe and prepared in a world that is totally out of their control.
The thing that I do truly believe is dangerous about all this weapon play is their comfort level with guns. My biggest fear in all of this is not that my boys will grow up to be murderous psychopaths or mafia kingpins, but rather that they will stumble upon a handgun or other weapon at a friend’s house and their fearlessness would lead them to touch and play with the gun.
This is a very real fear. Around 100-200 children’s deaths are caused by accidental discharge of a gun every year (0-17 years). My husband knew a kid growing up who was playing at a friend’s house and shot himself in the arm and nearly died from bleeding out. One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 1.6 million children live in homes with loaded and unlocked guns.
So you have to prepare your kids to encounter a gun at some point in his or her life. We have told our kids the story of Daddy’s friend who almost died while touching a gun. We explained that his friend was just looking at the gun, but that it went off by accident, so if they ever see a gun to leave the area right that second and tell a trusted adult immediately. We make them practice what to do, and how to tell the grown-up.
And while my kids are still young, they do sometimes have playdates at kids’ homes without me. Their ages make it possible for me to highly control where they are, but I still ask people whether or not there’s a gun at their home. People do seem to think it’s weird, but the are good about answering. I try to make myself seem silly, and I don’t know why I do that, but I do feel silly. It almost feels like I’m saying, “Hey Idiot, did you forget to put your gun away?” but what I really want to know is that they realize it’s important to me that my kids are safe. And a little reminder to double-check their personal firearm can’t hurt, should they have one.
I asked dad-blogger extraordinaire Jim Higley how he’s handled this with his kids, who are older than mine. He explained, “I absolutely would check with other parents as to whether or not they had guns. If yes, then you have to assess how safe your kids are. And you talk a little bit more about it when your kids are hanging out with kids whose parents have guns, or you encourage playing at your own home. You teach them about what to do if any one ever finds a gun, to get out immediately. And you pray.”
Yeah, you pray. Because it’s scary letting your kids go out into the world without you. You do your best to send them to safe places, but as we all learned from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, ultimately you’ll never know whether or not your kids are safe. And so you pray.
And after Sandy Hook, watching my sons use “finger guns” at the playground made my stomach turn. I pulled them both aside and said, “I know this seems like a fun game right now, but I really want you to understand that pretending to shoot at people really, really scares grown-ups and some kids now. I really want you guys to think about whether or not there’s another way you can play, like pretend to throw a Spider Man web?” They looked at me like I was crazy, but I think they heard me. They played Spider Man for a while, and then it was on to something else, something less centered around guns.
I don’t know whether their pretend gun-play indicates anything about whether they will own guns as adults. I’ve told them they can have a real gun when they go to the police academy or when they join the military, keeping the focus on heroes, as everyone from mental health professionals to Mister Rogers have suggested.
But really, I don’t know whether what I’m doing is right. As parents, we just do the best we can every day and hope that something we have taught them sticks. And we pray.