Of course, none of the firearms hanging around our house are real. They’re toys made of plastic, wood, and metal. Some shoot caps, some shoot clothespins, and one shoots ping pong balls. Lots of them squirt water. But they still look like guns and are played with as weaponry by the boys who race around my yard making shooting noises and ducking behind trees.
There was a time, at the beginning of my parenting journey nine years ago, when I would have shuddered at the thought of this scene playing itself out at our house. While still pregnant with my now nine year old son, Henry, I announced to anyone who would listen that my child would never engage in violent play with toy weapons. With the perfect confidence borne of never having actually parented a child myself, I lectured friends and relatives on the dangers to society of raising boys on a diet of toy guns, swords and soldiers. My comeuppance began almost immediately.
From the time Henry could manipulate blocks, playdoh, legos, and crayons, weapons became making a daily appearance around our house. Like the Richard Dreyfus character in "Close Encounters," Henry seemed compelled by some force beyond his control to mold everything, including his mashed potatoes, into various gun shapes. Ignoring the carefully chosen, non-sexist dress-up clothes, dolls, art supplies, and wooden animals with which we so thoughtfully provided him, he concentrated his energies on begging us to provide him with a "real" toy gun, as opposed to his homemade ones.
For several years, we stood firm. But something about my position on this issue rang hollow to me. My personal position on gun issues leans toward the libertarian; although I believe strongly in safety locks and background checks, I never want to live in a society where only the police and the military have access to weapons. Henry himself appeared to have a genuine and abiding interest in the topic, enjoying books and movies about military history. Before he entered first grade, he had taught himself how to identify by photograph a variety of 19th century American firearms. I started to wonder if there wasn’t something unhealthy about completely banning his access to a particular area of interest.
I also began to notice the way other little boys we knew – almost all of whom had parents who also disallowed toy guns in the home – acted out their clandestine desire to play with weapons. Running around the park or birthday parties, four and five-year-old boys who had never actually held a toy gun chased each other with sticks, discarded straws or whatever else they could find and "shot" at each other as parents tried not to notice or shook their heads in dismay.
My husband and I decided that Henry deserved to learn the truth about guns. Seeing so many boys besotted with the idea of guns without any idea of the difference between a toy and a real weapon began to seem very dishonest and feel very dangerous to me. I never wanted my child to confuse fantasy with reality when it came to something as deadly serious as a gun.
So we bought him his first toy gun – a wooden replica of a Civil War musket ordered from the legendary Parris Toy Company. Then we asked some of the gun-wise men in Henry’s life (which doesn’t include my husband, who has never had any interest in firearms) to begin teaching Henry about gun safety. In the past three years, Henry has become an excellent shot as a result of many target shooting expeditions with his grandfather, godfather, and uncles. He has seen a gunshot rip into a hay bale, a clay pigeon, and a target. He has seen men return from hunting trips (although Henry has been invited to go along, he has chosen not to hunt because he is too much of an animal lover to consciously cause another living creature pain) with gaping holes in their flesh. And when he is old enough, he will enroll in our state sponsored hunter safety course to learn more about gun safety.
As with most banned activities, allowing Henry
the chance to acquire a few toy guns immediately lessened the intensity of his
interest. And feeling the power of a real rifle as it kicks back against his
shoulder assisted him in grasping the power of a genuine firearm. He now
understands– to the extent that any nine year old child can understand such a
serious issue – the very real damage that a gun can do. And unlike perhaps too
many children in America today, he clearly knows the difference between a
super-soaker and a shotgun.