I am a mother of sons. I am a mother of daughters too, but at this stage they presents me with fewer parenting challenges than being a mother of sons.
In particular, I have a son who loves weapons and few issues have confused or troubled me more than the hysteria and stigma that surrounds my sons passion.
He enjoys weapon play of all kinds. He has cut up cardboard boxes to make swords and shields for the entire family and made a functioning bow with arrows from found materials. He treasures his knight costume, wearing it almost daily. He devours books on medieval weaponry and armour, Chinese gunpowder, revolutionary muskets and pistols, cannons and light sabres. He attempts to recreate prehistoric axes and spears. He gravitates toward camouflage and khaki when we shop for clothes and makes play-weapons out of anything; Lego, cardboard, rubber bands, even Vegemite sandwiches! Yet he is not particularly prone to violence or aggression, or attracted to testosterone fuelled sports. He is as capable of compassion and tenderness as his siblings. And therein lies my dilemma…. Arent I supposed to stop him?
Its normal isnt it?
With incidents like the Columbine High School shootings still fresh in our memories, it can be very difficult to find balance in considering little boys predilection for gun play.
The sheer number of families who report gun or general weapon play in their boys, who have otherwise not witnessed such violence, is so overwhelming as to convince me that were missing something obvious in our efforts to combat weapon play (pun intended).
Few parents rush to buy the commando kits that are available in toy stores. There is something repugnant about promoting war play in such an unimaginative way. Yet toy guns of all descriptions obviously fill a demand: by all reports, toy stores everywhere sell them in enormous volume.
There are also parents who take a zero tolerance stance to any toy remotely resembling a gun. For several years I did too. I was mortified when our trusted babysitter presented my son with an enormous, noisy, plastic Uzi for his third birthday. He was delighted, having asked her specifically for a really big gun – but I couldnt bear to watch him play with it. (As far as I know, it still sits on top of the cupboard in our recently sold house.)
At the same time, I was painfully aware that by banning gun play completely, I was making it highly attractive and desirable. So I continued to tolerate the imaginative creations of my sons weapon fascination. But I still felt torn.
When my children engaged in battle games, I made efforts to interject with awareness-raising questions, What are you doing?, Why are you doing that?, Is that going to hurt?, Can you get better just like that? Their replies reinforced for me that their play was pure fantasy; not desensitised violence. It was a naive exploration of their personal power and mortality. But Mum, were playing. Its only a game!
I began to observe it through the lens of role play, comparing it to other dark games where they are orphans who must survive, or shipwrecked and must rescue each other. The rules of play are complex and negotiated in minute detail. They are exploring their personal power, autonomy and independence. Its about good and evil, strength and weakness, and my instincts tell me its normal and healthy. Why should I treat weapon play differently?
Whose problem is it?
For years I resisted letting my son buy a toy gun preferring, if I couldnt stop him, that he at least create the weapons himself. Aged six, I felt he understood enough that we could use the toy as a catalyst for discussion about weapons and their role in hurting or helping society.
It was an old fashioned pistol of his choosing that I rationalised would complement his pirate costume. We limited play to outdoor target shooting and defense initially. Unlike his bow and arrow, there was no obvious danger in shooting at people, and again I had to relax my attitude and practice some mindful observation.
I wont lie. My sons play disturbed me. I felt guilty for raising such a lover of violence. When he one day put the pistol to his baby sisters head and, grinning, said, Bang! I lost control. The toy was confiscated while I attempted to make sense of the experience.
Intellectually, I debated with myself about giving my child mixed messages. How can you teach non-violence and simultaneously permit weapon play? I analysed the content of my sons television viewing but I knew that this was not at the root of the issue. After all, I have another son who is not at all weapons-obsessed, whom I have raised with similar attention and compassion. It seems apparent to me that this mode of expression is an intrinsic part of my sons self-identity. What message does he receive regarding his self worth if I constantly criticise and redirect his preferred mode of play?
Upon further reflection I recalled how, when the toy guns were made from Lego or cardboard, I observed the same aggressive play but did not respond with the panicked revulsion that I experienced with the replica. It provoked an assortment of associations that the makeshift weapons did not. Yet from my sons perspective, the game was the same. I suddenly realised that it was a matter of perspective – my perspective. My sons intentions were entirely innocent. I had over-reacted.
I played with guns and I turned out OK.
Its true, I did! My brother and I played cops and robbers with our cap guns. I never grew up desiring a gun or behaving violently. My brother even had an air rifle which he used to shoot old car wrecks and tin cans at the dump! I shudder at the memory, but there is now no greater pacifist than my dear brother. How many men do you know who grew up never playing shoot em up?
In 2003, the year Australias population hit 20 million, statistics showed fewer than 300 gun-related deaths just over one sixth of which were homicides. There does not appear to be any causal connection between imaginative weapon play in children and violence in adult society.
According to American research, the single best predictor of future violence and criminality is how much violence children watched on television: it desensitises us and increases the tendency to act more aggressively. Surprisingly, factors such as socio-economics, education, parenting practices, even the neighbourhood we live in, are irrelevant. (McManus, 1993)
Guns as tools.
Realistically, even a non-violent society needs people to fill roles that require the use and ownership of guns guards, law enforcement, military, even land care and farming. What does my son internalise about such people if all the messages regarding his gun play assert that guns and people who use them are bad? Does this devalue the social role of those who bear weapons for defense or deterrence?
Could his sense of my disapproval limit future career choices?
Dont worry Mum, I wont join the army or anything, he said. I know how much you hate guns.
This was not the kind of impact I wished to have. Who am I to dictate my childs vocation?
My husband reminds me that his experience as an army cadet taught him the basics of gun safety: it was a demystification of weapons that few of us get to experience. He is not intimidated by guns like I am. The uninformed dont differentiate between the assorted levels of risk the various firearms present like those who know guns do: to us, they are all the same.
Its not about guns at all.
In her book, We Dont Play With Guns Here War, weapon and superhero play in the early years, psychologist and senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, Penny Holland claims playing with guns is good for boys.
She writes, It is very much part of them making sense of the world. It relates to timeless themes of the struggle between good and evil… It seems to represent a developmental need to play with these things and my feeling is that it is counter-productive to work against that… Where there has been rigorous enforcement of zero tolerance, it marginalises these children because their interests are so squarely rejected. If they are constantly receiving negative responses to their play interests, with people saying, No, we dont play with guns here, they absorb the sense that they are bad boys. They seek negative attention and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon believes most parents and teachers do not understand what drives boys behaviour. He claims that the reason boys often choose violent solutions to complex problems comes down to issues of “emotional literacy”: the ability to put names to emotions, to express what one is feeling.
He presents case studies of boys behaving badly when their feelings are hurt, out of hope that it will communicate their pain. When asked a few simple questions about how theyre feeling by a patient and supportive listener, it turns out that boys are not emotionally impotent. What we need to teach boys is instead of simply saying, Im angry; no; I hate it! they should say, Im ashamed; that makes me feel bad; that hurts my pride. Its not a huge expansion of vocabulary.
So with regard to aggressive play I say, Boys will be boys! but if your son develops a strong attachment to weapon play, perhaps the most congruent thing to do is de-glorify it by exposing him to the discipline associated with handling real guns in a sporting or work environment.
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon Ph.D & Michael Thompson Ph.D, The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.
We Dont Play With Guns Here War, weapon and superhero play in the early years, Penny Holland, University Press, 2003.
Interview: A Conversation with Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=121