As the mom of a three-and-a-half year old, I’ve discovered that there’s literally no object that can’t be made into a gun. A stack of Legos, a grilled cheese crust, a Winnie the Pooh toothbrush. And when in doubt, let’s face it, a tiny pointer finger and machine gun sound effects will do the trick.
When my little guy started to fly around the house taking down stuffed animals and blasting lazers, I was a bit disturbed. For someone who sleeps with a baby doll, still needs help wiping his butt, and hides behind my legs when we meet new people, the impulse to shoot seemed a little strange. But recently I’ve started to wrap my head around the guns issue and let go of my worries that it’s bad for him – here’s why.
It dawned on me one day while my son was wearing a cheetah costume and hiding behind a pillow fort in the living room. He jumped out, all smiles and bright eyes, and with his angelic little voice took aim and fired his purple-marker “shooter” in my direction. He was playful and happy, and I realized that the act of shooting really didn’t matter – what mattered was the intention behind it. My son wasn’t trying to hurt anyone or be mean. In fact, he was downright jolly and light-hearted about it.
And yet, at the same time, I can’t help but think that the proclivity for battles, however innocent and good-natured, is also hard-wired somewhere in his developing brain. Natural selection has most definitely given humans a set of genes for – call it what you may – fighting, aggression, or self-defense. And I’m pretty sure those genes express themselves in the early play of rambunctious little preschoolers. My son is gentle and sensitive by nature, so, in a way, it makes me happy to see him expressing this rowdy, aggressive side too.
It’s not that I’m hands-off on the issue, though. We have plenty of boundaries and talks on it. For example, my little Rambo knows he can fire at his best buddies when they’re all playing the same game. But if you shoot at someone who isn’t engaged in the game, doesn’t like it, or gets overwhelmed, you stop, check in, and maybe pick a new way to play.
It’s just that we’re not a family who bans things – we talk about them, discuss pros, cons, and especially the context. We don’t think in black and white, we keep an open dialogue. For example, when my son (again, in his sweet little voice), said, “I’m shooting mama! I’m going to kill mama!” I called a family meeting and we talked about words that could hurt people’s feelings or make them scared. I said that I personally didn’t like being pretend killed, or the use of the word “kill” towards me at all.
And just this morning the three of us talked about how it can be fun to pretend play at shooting, but that real guns are dangerous and they hurt people. At first my son said that, “probably when he was six he could use one.” Then he decided that either “21 or maybe 100 years old” would be a better time. That sounded about right to me. In other words, he gets the idea that everything has its place, which is much more helpful to him than my outright disapproval. It’s the same way we conceptualize the litany of giggly poop, peep, fart-on-your-head jokes that are so popular with him these days. At school or in a restaurant – not okay. At home, or anywhere with just mom, dad, or good friends – downright hilarious.
We don’t have any toy guns, and we don’t watch violent TV. With my son becoming increasingly lured by superheros, we’ve seen Spiderman cartoons from the 1960’s that mostly consist of Spidey swinging leisurely from building to building. And for all the talk of “shooting electricity and hot lava,” we spend equal time doing puzzles and reading books.
Sometimes our little ones are telling us something with their makeshift guns and we need to pay attention. I’ve seen my son shoot me because I’ve told him I can’t carry him up the stairs and he’s peeved, in which case I need to acknowledge his feelings of frustration. He’s by nature a tender little soul, but when I feel like he is expressing anger or hostility with his shoot-em-ups, we talk about those underlying feelings. And clearly, these new ideas of superheroes, conflict, and good and evil are fascinating to him. He’s working on an important hypothesis about the world and he doesn’t need us to forbid it, he needs us to get in there and help him figure it all out.