“Bang you’re dead,” Jamie yells as he pops out from behind a tree.
“1,2,3…” I begin to count out loud. When I reach 20 I dart off around the corner of the garage.
Guns was a game that my friends and I created and played for hours at a time as kids. The yards, fields, forest and outbuildings around our homes were the battleground. The rules were simple: be the first person to yell “bang” when you saw someone and you didn’t have to freeze and count to twenty. You couldn’t lie in wait for someone to finish counting and then “shoot” them again, and if there was a dispute as to who said “bang” first you both ran off in different directions.
My mother, who has always hated guns, never dissuaded us from playing with toy ones. There was, however, a lot of talk about gun safety, and we were routinely quizzed on what we should do if we found a real gun. Despite all the “shooting” we did at each other, we grew up with a deep understanding and respect for the power and danger that a real gun held, as well as the value of human life.
The knee-jerk reaction to the increasing fear of guns and violence in our society is to make toy guns completely taboo in hopes that our children will not have any interest in them. This, of course, is not the case as my mother noted when I talked to her.
“You were making guns out of all kinds of things and if you couldn’t find anything you used your finger. Having a toy gun was no different.”
The author on his third birthday. Photo: Courtesy of his mother
At some point our society adopted an all-or-nothing attitude, and there is now no room for middle ground. Children as young as five have been suspended and interrogated for bringing a toy gun to school and allegedly pointing it at another student. A boy in Maryland was given detention and made to write a letter of apology for bringing a Lego gun, which was slightly bigger than a quarter, to school. We have become so overprotective of our children that they are given little to no chance to fail or are punished to the extreme.
Allowing children to play with guns is not promoting violence according to Michael Thompson, a child psychologist, it is about winning and losing, heroism and dominance and who gets to be the good guy. We have come to believe, despite research to the contrary, that aggressive play will turn our children into neighborhood thugs or desensitize them to violence instead of recognizing their play for what it is—a way for them to work through problems, learn to read facial expressions and body langue, and help them to process the world around them. All things that are vital for their development.
I posted an informal survey for this column on Facebook, and of the 40 or so people who responded, slightly more than half said they did not allow their children to play with toy guns. Some respondents gave the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph while others said that they would not let their child play with a toy of something they would not allow them to touch in real life. Yet children have toy tool sets, toy power tools or a toy kitchen in their home—All things that we talk to our children about not touching because they are dangerous—though we do not worry about them playing with their toy counterparts.
I’ve come into the room to see our boys cutting off each other’s arms with a red plastic saw or cooking up some poison in their toy kitchen. I’m always impressed with the imaginative story they have woven in these situations, but I also recognize it as a teachable moment.
We as parents need to stop being so controlling over what our children are playing and simply let them play. We need to demand that in our schools the punishment is on par with the offense. We need to be asking why the schools are not teaching gun safety like they are teaching fire safety in the classroom. This is easily accomplished using the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program (available free online) which teaches kids using steps similar to stop drop and roll.
It is not my desire to try and change people’s minds on this subject. However, I do hope to stimulate a conversation that allows us to step back and see the whole picture. After all, we wouldn’t dream of not talking to our children about drinking, drugs, sex or safe driving, so why then is there not a greater push to talk about gun safety?
This article originally appeared in the Charlotte News