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Inadvertently, I think I began my son’s interest in guns.

I didn’t mean to.  I didn’t even realize what I’d done until my husband commented that the cool Star Wars light saber I’d just bought our son could constitute as giving him his first weapon.

I was quieted by this parenting mistake.  I make them, as do all parents, often, and I hung my head in shame.  But I let him play with it anyway.  I was indulging his Star Wars interest and he very clearly knew that Star Wars was just pretend.  We then got a Star Wars Legos set but this time I took the Storm Troopers’ guns and put them back in the box.  But soon enough Benjamin was playing, shouting, “Blasters!”

This went on for a bit and actual guns never really made it into his play or even his vocabulary.  And I was pleased.  I’m not one of those extremist moms (he watches TV, he eats ice cream), but I decided early on that we would be a household free of gunplay.

But then the light saber led to pirate swords and then of course blasters and then to my utter sorrow, guns.

When Benjamin holds a stick or a plastic golf club and says, “GUNS!” there is usually a smile on his face.  He doesn’t seem to understand the complete terror a gun can bring.  And I don’t feel ready to explain to him the horror I felt when my best friend and I had a gun pulled on us when walking near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, even though the guy then put it down and started to laugh and headed off into the night.  My four year old does not need to understand that kind of fear.  But I feel I should explain to him why I say guns are bad.

I am stuck now between explaining it to him honestly or letting him continue with his four year old innocence.  I would prefer he not know about them and stay in his happy place.  But they are seeping in with or without my guidance.  It’s there when we read Babar and the hunter kills his mommy and Benjamin asks why.  It’s there when The Storm Troopers come raring in chasing Luke and Han.  It’s there as he plays cops and robbers.

Perhaps boys will just be boys.  Perhaps.

And I don’t want to hinder his imagination.  When he tells me he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I try to recognize that it is because he knows policemen help people, it is not because he wants to wield a gun.  His imagination is growing and merging with real, harsh events.  But he doesn’t need a push to get there.  He doesn’t need me buying him toys that behave as weapons.  One friend of mine was rightfully appalled that toy guns were given out in a birthday favor bag.  When guns and adult ideas come up, we can explain it to the best of our ability, but we don’t have to hand it to them with a bow on top.

My best friend, the same one who was there with me that scary night in Paris, recently told me about how her 3 year old son was at the playground and met an older boy.  There was a baby near by and at the older boy’s urging, her son and this boy began circling the baby and started chanting, “Let’s kill the baby!”  My friend was horrified and took her son home saying something simple like, “That’s not nice.”  Later, while cuddling in bed, he began chanting again.  “Kill!  Kill!”  She began to cry at these words coming from her little boy’s mouth and seeing his mother cry, then so did he.

As I look back on this story, I realize now I got a little “sanctimommy” on her and told her this was a perfect opportunity to talk to him about what kill and death mean, to discuss his feelings, that it was a missed parenting opportunity.  It was only once I retold the story to my husband, that he looked at me directly and said, “You would cry too.”  And he was right.

As our children discover new ideas, both good and bad, it is hard for us to keep up with how to broach the subject with them.  I wanted to be the all-explaining, patient, honest mother.  But some things are just so big, they are hard to explain to a child.  And I don’t want to say the wrong thing, like when I was discussing his grandfather’s death with him, I said something like, “Well, someday we’re all going to die.”  He looked at me with such fear and searching that though I was being honest I knew I had said too much and then just said, “Who wants ice cream?!!”

I am not sure what the answer is.  I don’t want to make guns and violence more attractive by making it completely off limits with no explanation as to why.

So when it happens again, perhaps I will follow my best friend’s lead, because seeing his own mother cry, might have been the best explanation her little boy could have been given.

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RACHEL ZIENTS SCHINDERMAN is originally from New York City, but has been living in Los Angeles since 1996. In LA, she has been an actress, a waitress, a student and a TV producer. Now, she is a mom and writes a column about motherhood for The Santa Monica Daily Press called Mommie Brain and also runs writing groups for Moms also called Mommie Brain. Besides working on the TV show Blind Date, her minor claim to fame is her mother, Eileen Douglas, wrote a children's book about her called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. She lives in Santa Monica, CA with her husband and son.

11 responses to “Hands up”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is a wonderful essay that describes the ambiguity of mothering boys so well. I have two of my own who are now nine and twelve years old. They had no guns under the age of five, but slowly and surely, they appeared in our house and now, at the ages of nine and twelve — well, we have an arsenal. I read something, somewhere (Michael Gurian, maybe?) that spoke to this primitive need of boys — the aggression, the testosterone, etc., and it makes sense to me. There is a difference between play and literal aggression, and I imagine a mother crying is where the learning happens.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Rachel,

    Relax, already. He’s a boy. Do you think he would not hear of or play with squirt guns or pop guns with his friends when he left your sight? Play is play. It’s good. Relax.

  3. James D. Irwin says:

    Boys are supposed to play with guns/swords/weapons.

    I had toy guns from the age of about three and I’ve only killed like, four people tops.

    Seriously though. Even without toy swords it doesn’t take long for a kid to pick up a stick and see either a ornate battle sword, a shotgun, or an intergalatic blaster.

    It’s actually *more* harmful to prevent kids from play fighting. It’s a natural part of socialization. Like how fox cubs wrestle with each other and whatnot.

    We grow out of it. I was a kid not so long ago, and I had loads of toy guns. Both guns that I’d fashioned out of sticks and imagination and toy guns that my parents bought for me sometimes.

    It’s perfectly healthy. So long as it’s make believe of course. An imaginary battle between aliens and space warriors, cops and robbers or any other film that fuels the imagination. Because those films are always a battle between good and evil with the good guys winning.

    It’s when they start pretending to be street hoods that you might need to intervene.

    Of course I say all this without any idea what it’s like to have a child, and only a basic education in sociology. But I think in closing I will point to my two old neighbours who were three and four and are now five and six. They had an arsenal of toy weaponary— both swords and a variety of guns. I used to play with them too. They loved slicing my arms off.

    But whenever they found insects of bugs they would refuse to kill it.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, man, playing guns is awesome.

    Uh…

    Was awesome.

    I used to love it. There’s something so much fun about mowing down the invisible enemy, whether that’s robbers, Foot Clan Robots (cannon fodder enemy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), or zombies.

    It’s a guy thing:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37X1t1Myz7A

    And yet, while I grew up happily playing guns, and army men, and playing video games where we killed stuff…

    Yesterday, I wouldn’t kill a spider in the toilet. I literally wouldn’t hurt a fly.

    It’s just part of the process.

    At least, it was for me. I’m sure there are people better-qualified to give an opinion.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    I wonder if an abiding fear that the line between imaginary and real aggression will not be clear to a child has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

    I mean, somewhat related is the fear of sexuality, in a way.

    I’m specifically thinking about Victorian attitudes toward sexuality, just snippets I remember from my Women’s Studies minor.

    The notion that, by being so paranoid about sexuality and chastity and whatnot, folks turned their attention to sexual displays in children, and in doing so, sexualized and almost fetishized their children’s sexuality at an age when children wouldn’t, in the absence of that kind of fearfulness, even had something like a concept of sexuality occur to them.

    That is, fear of sexuality is, in and of itself, a sexualizing phenomenon.

    See also: Sex-repressed Catholic stereotype.

    I wonder if fear of aggression…or, more specifically I guess, actual violence, can be the same way? I mean, something in my gut says says yes.

  6. I teach music to preschool aged children and a few times a year, we use sticks as an instrument. Guess what they ALWAYS become in the hands of boys?

    It’s impossible to take guns out of the vocabulary much as us peace-minded folk may want. I had a parent tell me she had no weapons of any kind in her child’s toy chest, but regardless, teddy bears turned into rifles and Barbie put the smack down on Ken on a regular basis. That phrase ‘boys will be boys’ maybe applies in the toy guns debate.

    Sounds like you’re a fab parent doing all you can. And sounds like you’re raising a perfectly balanced child. Just try not to cringe when he joins the NRA. Do they have child memberships? 😉

  7. dwoz says:

    Agree and ditto on what Colleen said.

    It’s part of the atmosphere.

    I’ve tried very hard to keep “weapons” out of the toy chest, but you can’t moderate sticks from trees that become swords. You can stop the guns but you can’t stop the imaginations. Or you shouldn’t at any rate.

    I have personally never fired a real gun.

    In my entire life.

    I used to have a bb gun, and did shoot (and was shot by) it. I killed a chickadee once with it. Low point. I realized what an uncivilized and savage, meaningless act it was. It changed me. My teen girls go to target practice and that’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s not like I don’t like guns. I just have no USE for them.

  8. Thank you to everyone for reading my piece and your thoughtful comments. I did just want to make clear though that I understand my son and his imagination and will not hinder it…he can play and let his imagination take off…in fact we act scenes from Star Wars. But my biggest concern and worry was that he understand what he is playing and the struggle in the balance for us as his parents to explain that to him honestly.

    Thank you again.

  9. Judy Prince says:

    Rachel, it’s wonderful that you want to have your son understand his parents’ struggle about the gun issue. It’s honest and helpful, like when your friend cried at her child yelling “KILL! KILL.” It wasn’t beyond the boy to understand, through sympathy, the seriousness of the problem for his mother and for him.

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    You always hear about those parents who try to shield their sons from guns and violent play only to find out that they’ve been inducted into that world by friends and classmates. People tend to use this as evidence that gender differences are innate and boys just like guns. As someone well-versed in queer theory and gender studies, I refuse to accept that. Still, though. There are no easy answers.

  11. Matt says:

    I don’t think there’s cause to panic just yet.

    I grew up a lot like Simon and Irwin discuss: guns, and by a greater extension, violence in general, were part of my daily routine. I had toy guns of various sorts, as well as swords and yes, the ubiquitous lightsaber. I watched the cartoons and played the videogames. But none of this lead me to grow up into a gun lover. Hate ’em, actually.

    One of the few things my parents did right was take the time to explain to my sisters and I the difference between abstract violence and the consequences of the real thing. We got it, and I think most kids do. It was all fun and games to play Army or Star Wars on the playground but the moment things got out of hand and someone actually got hurt, the fun stopped. We knew.

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