To shoot or not to shoot; that is the question!

As a child, the only girl sandwiched between my two brothers, I remember playing plenty of games that were typically considered to be for boys. We had nail bitingly intense Whiffle ball games, played exciting nerf football tournaments in the front yard, organized severely unfair games of H-O-R-S-E on the excessively tall basketball goal and occasionally indulged in some spy/military games that would have made Tom Clancy proud. Under the direction of our commanding officer (my older brother, Jimmy), my younger brother, Paul and I would help search for and destroy our enemy attackers with the aid of our trusty toy semi-automatic gun, cap gun and a pair of Radio Shack walkie talkies that were bigger than our home phone. We were SO stealthy! (I tried to find an appropriate picture of those walkie talkies (or something similar), but they apparently didn’t make the 80s toys hall of fame cut on the Internet. The closest thing they resemble is the old Zack Morris cell phone from the days of Saved by the Bell...and you know how hot that phone was. They had an enormous antenna and the Morse code button, with a Morse code guide that we did actually attempt to use.)

Wait…wasn’t my point to discuss whether to shoot or not to shoot? Yeah, I wanted to explore my thoughts on toy guns and kids. When I started delving into this particular parenting issue, my gut instinct was that it’s yet another political correctness issue that is based on a few studies that may or may not have reliable data. I started out by trying to remember playing with toy guns as a kid. Many would probably say, "But you’re a girl; it’s different." True. But I am a girl with two brothers. I wouldn’t classify myself as a tomboy then or now, but I still had brothers. I rarely got to play games of my choosing unless it was only me and Paul - because I was bigger and older than him.

Sadly, I don’t remember much about the games that my brothers and I played together. Jim was 6 years older than me and 10 years older than Paul, so we didn’t actually all three play together very often. But there were a few times that we pretended to be the A-Team or some other spy/military type group with our walkie talkies and toy guns. (Oddly, I don’t think we ever played cops and robbers, but that could just be my faulty memory.) This all took place back in the days when toy guns looked like guns and also made noises that were supposed to resemble a real gun.

We were normal siblings; we didn't have any serious rivalry or competition issues, but we did fight. Sometimes we fought really dirty, too. In our games, we pretended to kill each other, or our friends, if we’d chosen to divide into good versus evil. Of course, once all the bad guys had been defeated, we’d adjourn for a snack of milk and cookies and vow to fight the forces of evil another day. I don't know if my mom ever had reservations about us playing with guns, but it’s possible. I don't recall having any restrictions put on our play, such as not pointing the guns at each other or animals – after all, we did "kill" the bad guys when necessary. We knew for a fact that those guns were toys and that it was okay for us to play with them ONLY because they were toys. I can’t imagine my father having reservations about toy guns, though he is not the stereotypical gun-toting/loving Southern male. Despite that, he did own a rifle. His rifle was a gift from his father that he’d only used one time to my knowledge and I don’t think he even had any ammunition for it after all those years. He kept it for sentimental reasons only.

Since the 1990s, toy guns have become taboo. Initially it was because some “clever” kids figured out that they looked close enough to the real thing that they might just be able to get away with robberies. It was big news when police started finding teenagers and children robbing convenience stores with toy guns. It was even more shocking and tragic when cases started popping up where police shot suspects who were carrying a harmless toy gun as their weapon. The toy gun manufacturers appropriately bowed to pressure to produce toys that were not so realistic anymore and stores were stocked with fluorescent green, orange and pink toy guns.

The issue of kids and toy guns has taken a new, even more restrictive direction based on studies that conclude that playing with them can promote aggressive tendencies. Those who are strictest don’t allow their children to play with actual toy guns or anything that approximates a toy gun (i.e., imaginary stick gun or homemade Mega Blok/Lego gun).

My son, Brandon, is fortunate that he get the opportunity to be cared for each day of the week by a friend of mine who loves him almost as if he was her own. She runs a home daycare and we couldn’t be happier to have Brandon in such a good environment. Since I have the car during the day, I usually drop Brandon off each morning and since I’m unemployed I often hang around to visit. Sometimes I read to the kids as well. Recently, I was reading them a book by Mercer Mayer, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet and there is a point in the book when the child says he’s going to shoot the nightmare – and does!

After I finished reading the book and the kids requested another reading, my friend mentioned that it’s "get", not "shoot". I immediately understood that it’s her preference that the children not be exposed to the concept of “shooting” someone or something through this type of children's book – and it wasn’t a great surprise since we’d had conversations in the past about it. Of course, the word came up pretty fast and my mind just isn’t that quick! The kids brought me a second book and it happened AGAIN – I can only hope children’s books will lay off using these concepts, particularly for books that are written for very young children (this group was all under 4).

It did get me thinking, though, about what Matt and I will do with Brandon. I have nothing but respect for the choice my friend has made, particularly in a daycare since it tends to be easier to be cautious to account for the different and sometimes conflicting values that are inevitable when you gather children from multiple different families in one place. I have a couple of immediate reactions, though, based on our specific circumstances:

  1. We live very close to an artillery range for Canadian Forces training and you can hear the gunshots and Howitzers going off at various times and children will definitely notice and be curious about the noise. I was once out for a walk and stopped to chat with a neighbor who has two boys – 3 and 5 – and the older one kept talking about the fireworks. I knew there hadn’t been any recently, but I asked when he’d seen them. He hadn’t – he’d heard them…his parents were telling him that the artillery firings were fireworks. I understand why they did this, but I don’t feel comfortable at the thought of lying to Brandon outright that way. And, personally, I think having the artillery range nearby is an absolutely perfect opportunity to teach a child about the positive uses of a gun for law enforcement and military and why it isn’t a toy and any other values you feel are essential to instill. As uncomfortable as it may be for a parent, once a child shows interest in a subject, they are ready for an age appropriate explanation – in my humble opinion.
  2. Since I read to Brandon every day and buy him books very regularly, I have to decide when it’s appropriate for him to hear stories with words like “gun” and “shoot” and other related words/concepts. My gut reaction is that they are only words and reading them in a book, knowing their meaning does not produce a violent child (or adult). Let me be clear that I am not at all critical of anyone who chooses to avoid or hold off introducing those words/concepts – I don’t think that it’s necessary for very young children to be familiar with these terms. But on the flip side, what if they hear them from someone else? Is it then essential to teach them within the context of your own values or do you downplay and not give attention to it until they are older? And what age IS appropriate for children to freely read about these concepts? It’s certainly not an easy choice!

I’ve been thinking about this issue for quite a while and I have asked several different people – parents, non-parents, family members – what they’ve done or would do because I appreciate different perspectives, though I’m still undecided on what I feel is right and appropriate. To be honest, since I played with toy guns, I don’t see it as a detrimental type of play; especially since I personally remember more about our gargantuan walkie talkies than I do about any of the toy guns we ever had. (Perhaps that’s the key; "distraction parenting".) At the same time, I respect the right other parents have to restrict this type of play. Of course, when I picture my beautiful little boy picking up and aiming a toy gun, it’s not a mental image that I’m at all comfortable with (unless it’s a water gun). It’s funny how becoming a parent so drastically changes your perspective.

More than anything, I simply want Brandon to have an innocent, fun childhood full of learning, imagination, creativity and discovery.

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