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Just Say 'No' to Gunplay, Right?

Photograph by Getty Images

I strapped on the weighted vest, tightened the belt around my hips and released the gun as instructed. I listened intently to everything the boy half my age was saying, knowing we were about to enter battle and his instructions would help me succeed in picking people off. Where was I? On the frontlines somewhere in the Middle East? Basic training in San Diego? A second-grade birthday party in the San Fernando Valley? If you guessed the latter, no doubt you are a parent who has scaled the mountain of “shooting party” options from water guns, to Nerf guns to the game I was about to play, Laser Tag.

I hate guns. I have signed anti-gun petitions and gone to “Mothers Against Guns” rallies. Despite my contempt, when my 7-year-old was invited to this laser tag fiesta, I decided to see for myself what could possibly be fun about the experience of shooting at people in a way that allowed you to feel as if you were, I don’t know how else to say this, shooting people. I’ll get back to my experience later, but, first, let’s get to the point of the latest mistake of the week, made by parent educator and mother of two, Rebecca Weiker.

Before speaking with Weiker, I have to admit I was a little naive to the influence of gunplay on boys. For reasons I don’t know, given how common it is, pretend shooting/killing has never been popular in our house. One time my father-in-law, a veteran of two wars, brought over a bag of water guns, and I took them from his hands and threw them directly in to the trash. The boys looked at him and said, “Mom hates guns. Sorry Grandpa,” and ran off. Somehow we have also skirted the onslaught of shooting references and gun games in their schools. In talking to mothers of boys, I know this is not the norm. It was in my conversation with Weiker that I was most moved by the challenge of managing boys’ impulses for gunplay.

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Weiker has good reason to ban guns, toy or otherwise, from her life. In 1992, her sister, an adolescent and child psychologist working in Israel at a community mental health center, was shot and killed by a patient along with three other women. According to Weiker, before having her first son, “I hadn’t read anything about raising children to be nonviolent. But I thought the way to do it was by making it clear that it wasn’t okay to play with guns, because that’s how people learned how to be violent— through violent play. That it encouraged boys to be violent.” She managed to keep guns out of his life until her boy was given a water gun as a party favor when he was three. Then he went to preschool, and she was overwhelmed by all the boys running around yelling, “I’m gonna kill you,” brandishing plastic guns, turning Legos in to guns, even using their fingers as guns.

Tentative at first, I quickly acclimated to the kill or be killed spirit of the game.

“It drove me nuts,” she told me. “I couldn’t keep him from this kind of thinking, but I tried. I didn’t buy them for him, and I think I probably shamed him when he asked for them. “Then, when he was around four or five, he asked her to buy him a fake gun. In a panic she blurted out, “Guns aren’t toys! They actually hurt people. My sister was killed by someone with a gun.’” Although embarrassed to admit it, at the time, she had no insight that this wasn’t the right way to handle his request.

It wasn’t until she talked it over with a therapist that Weiker was told restricting all gunplay, and making the connection to a real murder to her preschool-age son, wasn’t the best choice. The therapist assured her that gunplay, within reason, was perfectly normal for boys and that they should not be shamed for wanting to do it. The therapist told her, “Ezra needs to be able to play with toys, with daggers and swords, and army guys, and dragons and knights, and soldiers,” Weiker said. She was also directed to the expert on children and media, Diane E. Levin, whose books "The War Play Dilemma" and "Teaching Young Children in Violent Times" Weiker credits with helping her make peace with what she now refers to as, “the pretend violence of my son's play.”

With holiday shopping season here, what a perfect time to give some thought to the effects of toy guns, video games and all other war-themed toys for our kids. To help you with your choices, here’s a link to one article that may help you understand the connection between violent video games and children. Unfortunately, no studies are conclusive enough to get rid of the most dangerous video games, the ones referred to as “first-person shooter games” (think “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto”) forever. Given that violence isn’t going anywhere as a source of entertainment — in fact, if anything, it’s increasing — I have another link for you, this is to one of Diane Levin’s articles “Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting children’s needs in Violent Times,” (Young Children, May 2013).

There was no question that I liked shooting these women and children, and strategically ducking out of the way before they shot me.

Now, back to the laser arena and me suited up, gun in hand, a soldier for the Blue Team. Tentative at first, I quickly acclimated to the kill or be killed spirit of the game. Hanging back in corners, pointing my gun at enemies of all shapes and ages lit up in red and gold bulbs, a surge of adrenaline ran through me every time I pointed my gun and heard the winding down siren letting me know I’d hit someone.

It didn’t take long for me to get the thrill of the laser kill. Instantly, I understood what Weiker was talking about when she said the problem with most gun games is that no one understands real consequences or makes a connection to a person. There was no question that I liked shooting these women and children, and strategically ducking out of the way before they shot me. I know it was rays of light and not bullets, but the experience of it, of having a gun-shaped device in my two hands that I pointed and fired, was enough for me to realize that I needed to never do this again.

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I’m not saying that playing laser tag is going to make me a serial killer. I’m also not saying it will make every kid one. But I am saying, an adrenaline hit, whatever the source, is intoxicating.

Unless you live in a sequestered village you will not be able to keep violence, real or virtual, completely out of your children’s lives. Nor should you try to. But I do believe with everything I know to be true that it is our responsibility as parents to monitor it as best we can for the children out there who discover it and find themselves overtaken by the false sense of power it can deliver, thereby becoming a threat to themselves and to all of us.

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