With his kids, Carter Gaddis straddles a line between regulating imaginative gun play and banning it.
The kids in our neighborhood run around with their toy guns and do what kids do with toy guns. They pretend to shoot each other, or imaginary bad guys, with those toy guns. We did that with toy guns when I was a kid forever ago, and our parents never gave it a second thought.
But then, that was long before Columbine. Before Virginia Tech. Before Tucson. Before Aurora. Before Sandy Hook.
Things have changed.
Our seven-year-old son plays with the kids in the neighborhood, many of whom are around his age. It’s an important stage of growth for our first grader, his initial extended foray into unsupervised free play with friends. We’re fortunate that he can play in relative safety on a quiet street in the gated exurbs of West Central Florida. My wife and I give him the freedom to roam next door, and maybe a few houses down, as long as he lets us know where he’s going beforehand and as long as we know there’s a parent nearby.
What they like to do is play games of war. Of course they like to do that. These are boys in America. Their great-grandparents loved gangster flicks like Little Caesar and the Public Enemy and lived through World War II and Korea. Their grandparents loved Gunsmoke and lived through Vietnam. Their parents loved Star Wars and lived through two wars with Iraq, 9/11 and an ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Soldiers and police officers and Han Solo – men and women of action, bearing arms – are idolized by young boys. Even in the horrific aftermath of the Newtown shootings, even as Congress debates the merits of the latest gun control bills, the pretend battles rage in neighborhoods across the country.
Like so many parents around the world, the tragedy in Newtown shattered my previous ambivalence about guns. Full disclosure: If the Second Amendment as interpreted by the hard-core gun-rights advocates in our country were overturned by the will of the American people, I would rejoice. And this is coming from someone who grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina, where hunting and guns were (and are) a big part of life. My maternal grandfather belonged to a hunting club, and the trophy set of 10-point deer antlers he bagged when I was a kid in the 1970s remain an enduring personal symbol of my childhood.
This isn’t only about that, though.
It’s about the conflict between my concern regarding the role of guns in our society, and my son’s socialization among his childhood peers in the neighborhood.
It’s not merely a broad political issue for us. It’s personal. It’s personal for every parent of every child who one day decides he or she wants to play with a toy gun with the neighborhood kids.
Do I want my son running around the neighborhood pretending to shoot other kids? Do I want other kids pretending to shoot my son? I do not.
Do I want my son to feel like he fits in with the other kids? Do I want him to build friendships now that might last a lifetime? Yes. Yes, I do.
And that’s the conflict.
We chose to spend more time outside with our son, presenting alternatives to toy gun play, such as soccer or baseball, hide and seek or kick the can.
We chose to emphasize the “pretend” part of playing with toy guns. To explain to our son that real guns pointed at real people can do real harm. That even kids his age can die if someone shoots them with a real gun.
That it has happened before, and not so long ago. We did not give him the details, because we didn’t want him to share our nightmares.
We also chose to purchase a foam dart gun. Only, instead of a “gun,” we bought him a Star Wars Rebel Trooper blaster, with foam dart capability. It’s a blaster, see. Not a gun. He’s a good guy, like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and all the Rebel troopers they fought with against Darth Vader and the Emperor. He will fire his blaster only for good, and only if Greedo shoots first. So, there’s that.
I still feel like we’re straddling some sort of untenable line between condoning the kind of play that – let’s be real here – is an imaginary re-enactment of killing with firearms, and the direction my gut says we should go, which is a firm denial of any kind of pretend gun play.
Yet, to deny our son the chance to fully immerse himself in imaginative, relatively unsupervised play with his peers also would be wrong. We’ve explained to him in no uncertain terms that real guns are not playthings, and we’ve even made him promise not to point his new blaster at anyone who wasn’t involved in the game. This, I think, is as much a test of our ability to trust his developing judgment as it is a conflict between our views on guns and the vital role of childhood play in shaping his personality in the long-term.
I don’t know if there is a clear-cut right answer for us. I just know that my parents never had to think about this issue quite this way, and I wish we didn’t. We do, though. We do, and our kids need to know that we’re thinking about it – and why.
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—photo by steve_lodefink/Flickr