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Like most parents, I try to toe the line between shielding
my kids from some aspects of pop culture, world news and whatnot enough to
allow them their childhood innocence while also preparing them to survive—and
thrive—in the actual world we live in. Taking the long view, my goal is to
raise emotionally healthy boys into men who respect themselves and others, who can think critically about the messages they receive and contribute
within their communities without being swallowed whole by the prevailing
zeitgeist of the time. In terms of how this plays out in our day-to-day lives, well—not shockingly—it involves some compromise.
Consider Example A: Superheroes. My five-year-old, Kaspar,
has been really, really into
superheroes for over a year now. I don't recall where he first learned about
them, exactly, whether at preschool or elsewhere, but Batman, Superman and Spiderman
have been a pretty big deal in our home for a while. I support Kaspar's
enthusiasm for this just as much as I do his interest in sea creatures or his
passion for pirates. And while I don't exactly get the superhero fascination
on an adult level, I can see how, at five years old—as the world begins to
come into focus and can seem kind of big and scary—imagining oneself to be
an invincible force for good might be appealing. Watching a five-year-old run around in a superhero cape all the time is also super cute.
I don't, however, love the glorification of the hyper-agro
protagonist that's so fundamental to the superhero genre, or the way the
female characters are drawn with costumes so contoured that the women might as
well be naked. (Let's not even get into the gender stereotypes built into the
plot lines.) Some of this flies under the radar for Kaspar, and we've kept it
more tame by buying him only the materials that are geared toward
his age group, like early-reader books and the occasional little kid-oriented
superhero cartoon on Netflix. We also
make a point to talk about what we're reading or watching with Kaspar. (I ask
questions like, "Why did he punch that guy?" Or say, "This is
exciting, but I'm glad it's just pretend.") So while he loves superheroes, Kaspar doesn't think punching someone is a way to solve a problem, even
if Batman does.
Superheroes are obviously fantastical; norealpeople run around in masks and spandex bodysuits fighting evil villains. But real peopledorun around shooting guns and thereby killing other real people.
One thing I appreciate about the superhero stuff that's made
for younger kids is that, in general, the characters don't use guns. Batarangs
and sonic laser darts, maybe, but not actual firearms. Even so, like other
little boys his age, Kaspar sometimes plays guns, and this, however predictable
or normal, is something I've had a harder time compromising on. Superheroes are obviously fantastical; no real people
run around in masks and spandex bodysuits fighting evil villains. But real
people do run around shooting guns
and thereby killing other real people. This has also become kind of commonplace in
our culture, and this is something I'm definitely not comfortable with. I
firmly believe we need gun control in the United States and I never, ever
wanted my boys to think guns are cool. I've never bought so much as a water
pistol for them, but we have read
Treasure Island and Kaspar has seen the original, classic "Star Wars" films
(which he LOVES). And… yeah, Kaspar does play guns sometimes, just like he
plays at swordfights or karate. In lieu of gun-like toys, he uses sticks,
bananas and shoes.
It's not an unhealthy obsession—this isn't a "We Need to Talk About Kevin" kind of
situation or anything. In fact, I can see in the way that his friends play,
too, that it's totally normal behavior; as soon as Kas and his little buddies
get together, it's only a matter of time before they start pretending to shoot
at bad guys (and then switch, just as quickly, back to playing gun-free space
explorers, etc.). Research on the topic shows no correlation between gun play
and violence or aggression later in life. (My brother played pretend guns, as
did my husband. Neither owns a firearm now.) So I shifted somewhat begrudgingly
from an initial stance of No Gun Play Ever to no toy guns.
Then, recently, our super-sweet
elderly neighbor saw us walking by, indicated that we should wait for her and
then disappeared into her house. When she returned, she presented Kaspar with a
realistic-ish foam rifle. He was thrilled.
I suppose I could have said "Oh, thank you but we can't accept that,"
but Kaspar had already grabbed it and run off ahead, and our neighbor is not
only hard of hearing, but also hardly speaks English. It would have been
difficult to politely give the toy back to her… and taking it away from Kaspar
once we got home would have been pretty mean. So we talked about it. I told Kaspar
that I really, really don't like guns and so I don't particularly like it when
he plays guns, but that I trust that he understands it's just pretend. And then
I set some rules.
Kaspar knows real guns are dangerous; I have given him
explicit instructions to leave the room and get a grown-up if he ever sees a
gun in real life. When he plays guns, he is not allowed to point them (the foam
rifle, or the sticks/bananas/shoes) at anyone's body. And he's only allowed to
play guns in our backyard—not at our playgroup or any public space where he
might "shoot" at others who aren't playing his game. So far, he's
following the rules to a T—I think because he knows I really don't want to
let him play guns at all and he doesn't want me to revoke my compromise. For my
part, I've accepted that this is a "boy thing" or a kid thing that I'm not
exactly comfortable with but is, I'm fairly certain, essentially harmless. (But
still, guns. Ugh.)
What are your thoughts and rules around gun play? Do you let
your kids have fake guns as toys? Do you think playing guns is bad for kids?