If you have boys, you can safely assume that, at some point, they will play with guns.
If your boys happen to be young — say, under the age of two — you may be vigorously disagreeing with me right now. You might be thinking, My boys will never play with guns!
I have news for you: they will. If your son is an American boy child, at some point, he will point his index finger and make a shooting sound. He’ll probably chew a piece of food into a gun shape, or use a found object (a stick, an old toy phone) as a gun.
If you’re very anti-gun and anti-gun play, he’ll do these things when you aren’t looking. And while that might make you feel a bit more comfortable, the truth is that you can’t afford to ignore your son’s fascination with weapons and guns — not because gun play increases the risk of violence, but because we live in a society that’s increasingly intolerant of gun play.
The research has consistently shown that playing with pretend weapons, including guns, is perfectly normal and not at all harmful. In fact, playing “guns” and “war” may help children learn how to relate to others and how to self-regulate. (Of course, kids don’t need to play with pretend guns to learn these things. The point is that playing guns has never been proven to be detrimental to development, and, for some kids anyway, toy guns may be tools they use to learn and explore the world.)
But playing with guns is a risky proposition in today’s America. Earlier this year, a 7-year-old was suspended from school for chewing his PopTart into the shape of a gun and saying “bang!” And now, two 7th grade boys in Virginia Beach have been suspended from school — for a whole year — for firing Airsoft guns while on private property. (At this point, it’s a bit unclear if any of the Airsoft pellets hit kids who were standing at a nearby school bus stop.) In our increasingly wary society, gun play is no longer viewed as harmless; boys with guns, of any kind, are at considered a threat and may face serious, real-world consequences as a result of their play.
It’s up to us to help us our boys understand and manage the risk involved with gun play. As a parent, I believe it’s my job to let my sons know:
- Why gun play makes some people deeply uncomfortable
- When and where and what kind of guy play is OK
- How they should respond if someone expresses a concern
I have no problem with my sons playing with Airsoft guns. Collectively, they own an arsenal worth of Airsoft weapons, and thankfully, my boys hang out with other kids whose parents also approve of Airsoft play, provided certain safety rules are followed.
My responsibility doesn’t end there, though. Boys, I believe, need to know exactly why adults are so concerned about kids and weapons. They need to know that no one wants kids (or adults) shot unnecessarily,and that everyone is working to prevent the next school or playground shooting. They need to know that people are hyper-alert to the threat of violence right now, and that not everyone knows, at a glance, the difference between a toy gun and a harmless gun. They need to know that they can be absolutely within their rights and following all of the rules of their school, home and community, and still come under suspicion. And they need to know how to balance their right to free play with the community’s desire for safety.
That’s why my boys must abide by these common sense rules for gun play:
- Orange plastic tips must remain in place on all realistic-looking weapons
- If anyone expresses discomfort with gun play, the play must stop instantly
- Airsoft weapons and realistic-looking guns may not be carried in plain sight and must never go to school
- No playing with airsoft guns or other realistic-looking runs in public sight. At my house, that means Airsoft play is restricted to the garage attic.
- If school, local or law enforcement authorities question your play, stop immediately and treat the authorities with respect. It’s OK to ask to contact your parents before answering any questions.
Like it or not, our boys live in a culture that’s quick to criminalize what may be perfectly normal and legal behavior. Part of my job as a parent is to help my sons learn how to function in that society. I can (and will) advocate for the acceptance of harmless behavior. But at the same time, I will teach my sons how to handle society’s fears and frustrations. I will equip them to mitigate risk, by showing them ways to explore their interests without unnecessarily alarming other people. I will not let their interest in pretending guns derail their future.
How do you help your sons balance their interest in weapons with society’s fear of guns? Do you have any common sense guidelines to add to my list?