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Teachable Moments Amidst the Arsenal of Toy Guns

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To my feisty, nearly five-year-old son, every object is a gun: a stick on the ground, a nibbled piece of toast, my fingers reluctantly shaped (by him) into a gun. And everything is a target. “Hey, let’s go shoot the bad guys!” is his idea of a fun game. This mode of play seems to be ingrained into the DNA of most young boys—whether they have any real exposure to guns or violence or not.

A lot of the time, I let his “shoot-‘em-up” games carry on—as long as he is pretending the target is some sort of imaginary “bad guy.” But if he comes at me or another family member or friend and says, “I’m going to shoot you!” I have to call time out. “We don’t shoot people,” I remind him. “But what if they’re bad?” he asks. “Well, then you can arrest them and take them to jail,” I tell him. Which, yes, has its own set of flaws and nuances, but I’ll stick with the topic of pretend gun violence for the moment and leave criminal justice reform for another day.

I don’t think it’s realistic to put the kibosh on all games of shooting “bad guys,” but I do draw the line when it starts getting personal. You can’t pretend that you are shooting your mother, sorry pal. I want my kids to know that there are other ways to deal with the bad guys, and you don’t have to resort to shooting them to do that. I also want to stop my son’s imaginative play when it veers toward the violent.

Fortunately, my son’s primary exposure to violence is of the cartoon and superhero variety; he doesn’t yet know the scary (if remote) possibility that a mentally troubled person with too-easy access to a gun could shoot him in his school or at the mall. But I know this, and lately, I’ve started paying closer attention to the toy gun play, trying to find a balance between teachable moments and letting it go.

My son, the gunslinger

My son, the gunslinger

Our family is not anti-gun; we are anti-gun misuse, pro-gun safety and regulation. My husband is an avid deer hunter, so we have hunting rifles in the house—concealed and stored separately from the ammunition. The kids see my husband handling his guns for hunting trips and have been sternly instructed to never touch them as well as warned how dangerous they can be if used improperly. They have been told that the only reason you shoot animals is for food and that you never shoot people. We do not have any type of handguns or keep any loaded guns in the house.

My husband and I, like all of you, have been saddened and outraged by the seemingly endless string of mass shootings in this country. We are frustrated that lawmakers have so far taken no significant action to strengthen U.S. gun laws and expand background checks. Guns are far too easy to obtain in this country, and far too many people believe that they are the solution to any conflict or altercation.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where my son’s gun enthusiasm comes from except my aforementioned conclusion that it’s ingrained into his DNA. He doesn’t own any realistic looking toy guns; he has multi-colored water guns and some nerf guns. He’s only shot a BB gun a handful of times. I don’t think screen time is necessarily the culprit either. Our family does not own any kind of gaming device; I don’t think my son has ever played a video game in his life. However, his favorite shows of the moment are Star Wars’ Clone Wars and Batman—which have their fair share of violence (too much for my taste), and my husband and I have decided that the Clone Wars viewing will soon end. We do balance these darker shows with Mr. Rogers reruns on Netflix as well as PBS favorites like Wild Kratts and Odd Squad. (I will note that the toy gun play started long before my son ever watched Clone Wars.)

My husband and I don’t generally talk about national gun violence tragedies like Sandy Hook, Charleston, and now Roseburg, Oregon, with the kids. So far, I have wanted to shelter them by not discussing these scary things. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s time to address these events in an age appropriate way so that they start to grasp the gravity of what crazy people with guns can do.

Mainly, I want to do everything I can so my son doesn’t segue from toy gun enthusiast to adult gun nut, and I think it’s highly likely that he won’t. I take comfort in the fact that I regularly played “war” with the neighborhood kids growing up and was not prompted to join the military or the NRA. I align much more with conscientious objectors and pacifists than die-hard 2nd Amendment defenders.

At the end of the day, I don’t worry too much over my son. At bedtime, when he curls up next to me with his little stuffed dog Sophie and asks for a good dream and a song, he is all sweetness and snuggles. Guns are the furthest things from our minds (well, my mind at least). He really is a dear little boy, and I think he’ll grow up to be an all right guy. For now, I just wish he’d dial back the fake gun play and calmly play Legos with his sister. Exactly the way she wants him to. For the next hour. A mom can dream, right?

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