In our house, we play army. We play it hard, big time, like we mean it. The wrought-iron furniture in my backyard is draped in brown camouflage nets. What was once a lovely outside seating area is now an army fort where my towheaded, 3-foot-tall soldier crouches in his full camo uniform, scouting out the sinister (albeit nonexistent) enemy.
Inside, my otherwise well-decorated home is accessorized with weaponry. A plastic machine gun, too long to fit into the toy bin, lies on top of a shiny wooden chest. Grenades roll under the sofa on a daily basis. A walkie-talkie buzzes with static from the kitchen counter, and everywhere — literally everywhere — you’ll find green plastic army men manning their strategic positions.
I mother my 4-year-old in a make-believe battlefield. I discipline and instruct and encourage over the sounds of a small boy’s voice yelling, “Boom,” “Bang,” “I got you!” and sometimes, hopefully, “Yes, ma’am!” with a salute.
I don’t particularly like guns, but I accept that my son likes them. My son, the boy who’s snuggled up in bed right now watching cartoons with his sippy cup and his plastic M-16 — the first toy gun we ever purchased him when he was barely two. Now he is almost five, and even though his arsenal has greatly expanded, that gun is still his favorite.
Not everyone accepts this, though. My son’s preschool has a strict “no gun play” policy, his teacher told me in a recent email. She went on to explain that she understands that “boys will be boys and all that,” but my son’s constant gunplay and talk of war — plus his tendency to turn everything, from blocks to dolls, into a gun — was just not appropriate at school.
But no matter what the school’s policies are, I won’t tell my son that guns and war play are off-limits at home. It’s certainly not the pretend killing or the talk of war that I like. No mom who’s watched her husband go overseas to fight, like I have, would like hearing that. And no mom who has dealt with the fears, risks, and realities of war actually enjoys seeing her son pretending that way. But it’s much more complicated than that.
What I appreciate about my son’s love of playing army is all that he has come to learn and understand about being a soldier. He is not quite five, and yet I think he comprehends more than a lot of adults. He knows that good soldiers are selfless and brave. They run into harm’s way for the sake of others. They accomplish their mission, are never deterred, and leave no man behind. They are the leaders, the ones who risk, protect, and sacrifice … the ones who really matter.
His own father served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an active duty infantry officer, and we’ve already told our son about other kids his age, kids we know, whose dads are also soldiers just like his. We’ve talked to him about how playing army is fun, but real war is not.
Sometimes I worry that we may have told our son too much — these are big issues for such a little boy to deal with — but it’s necessary. For years he watched his father put on a uniform once a month to serve in our state’s National Guard, but at the end of every weekend, dad always returned. My son has never lived on-post, never had to move around from school to school, never had dad miss a birthday because of a deployment. He wasn’t alive yet for the weeks when I had no communication with his father, or worse, for the phone calls informing spouses that a soldier in the unit had been injured or killed. He wasn’t alive yet when his father was living in Afghanistan, what some called the “Valley of Death.” He understands none of this pain (thankfully), so it’s up to me to balance his love for the military with the reality of the sacrifice involved.
I know what you’re thinking: this is not the sort of thing you’re supposed to be talking about with a four-year-old. But we didn’t really have a choice. He was going to play army — growing up in a military family, it was inevitable — and we liked it that way. And along with learning the difference between a Humvee and a tank, it’s important that he eventually learns what being a soldier really means, about the high price they pay to be heroes.
Some may not like that my son plays army and likes guns — and that I whole-heartedly approve of it. It’s an understandable position to hold. But here’s why I couldn’t be happier: My son doesn’t know the names of any professional athletes. He doesn’t know that movie stars and famous musicians should be idolized and imitated. He doesn’t know to be impressed by wealthy business tycoons or that he should feel envy at their bank accounts. But when he sees a soldier in an airport, he beams with excitement and tucks behind me with shyness and humility. He knows he’s in the presence of strength and bravery personified. He knows that he is free and safe because of something this person did. He knows he’s seeing a hero, someone great and amazing. Someone he hopes to be just like someday when he grows up.
That’s why, in our house, we play army.
Photo: Kirsten’s husband and son in their uniforms