Bang! Toy Guns & Our Children

Essay, The Charlotte News

“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.”

 

Jorden 3rd Birthday

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

I’m supposed to be the adult

Essay, The Charlotte News

Luke and I are in the basement playing with the wooden train track he and his brother constructed a few days earlier. One section continually falls over and I move some pieces around to make it more sturdy. Luke warns me that Noah is going to be really mad. I don’t listen. I should have.

Early one morning a few days later, Noah comes down into the basement to play trains. Immediately he sees that the track has changed and begins to cry. It is the latter part of the school week so his coping skills are low, and to compound the situation his mom worked late the night before and was not able to be home for bedtime. The latter always upsets the balance of the house. I quickly offer to help change the track back, but it’s too late. He no longer hears me and begins to take out his frustration by wreaking the track. I take Luke upstairs to have breakfast. Noah follows crying and tries to rip up some of Luke’s schoolwork. I lose my cool, snatch the papers out of his hand and yell at him.

I’m supposed to be the adult in this situation, but I’m not doing a very good job of holding it together. My coping skills erode by the end of the week as well it seems. Getting upset with Noah and yelling accomplish getting my heart rate up, causing Noah to dig his heels in more, and scaring Luke, who at this point is covering his ears and hiding behind the plant in the corner (something I did as a kid when there was yelling). If I’d just taken the papers out of his hand and said nothing and gone about the morning, the situation would have defused a lot faster. That’s not what I did and now I feel horrible that Luke is clearly scared and the morning has crumbled so quickly. However my stubborn prideful self causes me to stand my ground. I should just stop and give Noah a hug and admit I lost my temper. That’s what will work, but instead I continue to be an ass.

I called my mom to see if I had tantrums that were as colorful as Noah’s are. She said she couldn’t remember, though she did say that I stood at the top of the stairs and screamed when I was mad.

“We just ignored you when you did that,” she told me.

Recently my wife and I decided to have a code word for those times when one of us is getting out of line. Coconuts, is what we are supposed to say, the idea being that this will cause the other person to take a step back. It has been working with mixed results. What we really need to do is re-read the book called If I Have to Tell You One More Time. In it the author talks about how bad behavior is often just attention seeking behavior, which is what was clearly going on with Noah on this morning. In hindsight I should have just started putting the track back together the way he had it.

The remainder of the morning is a roller coaster but I manage to keep calm and use phrases like­–When you leave your bike there, then I am not going to help you put it away. Emphasizing the when and the then (we also learned this from the book) lets children know what the consequence will be and gives them a chance to make a choice. This works better than giving a command.

By the time we head off for school everything is back to normal.

 

 

 

 

 

Lost and Found

Essay

I spent a good portion of my twenties wishing I was doing something else or was somewhere other than my current situation. I would think to myself, If I could just get to this point, I would be happy. If I just did this more, I wouldn’t feel this way.

In 2008 I was hired as the graphic designer for a living history park. I can honestly say that I loved going to work. We had only planned on staying in Utah for three years but since I had found a job that I actually enjoyed we decided to stay longer. Then, on a Monday two weeks after Noah was born, my boss called me at home and asked me to stop into his office when I got to work. When I got there, he told me they were going in a different direction and they were letting me go. I knew I’d been doing a good job, but just like that it was over. I went home, and after some soul-searching my wife and I decided that the most logical thing was for me to stay home with Noah, even though this was not part of our plan.

I thought that I had figured it out, that with the job at the living history park I was finally able to define who I was. Then the job was gone and I felt lost and completely uncomfortable in being defined as just a stay-at-home-dad. At first I tried to do some freelance design work. Then I began writing this blog but soon became more concerned with how many people were viewing it and how often I was posting, and it became more stressful than fun so I stopped. After so much time spent on the computer writing, I drifted into painting, which led to printmaking, which led me to turn our shabby garden shed into a shabby but functional art studio. Every month or two I would freak out and exclaim that I could no longer do this and I needed to get a job. Then I would come to my senses. I looked into being a volunteer Chaplain at the VA but found that, unfortunately, the time commitment was too great. I looked into ski patrol, but for the same reasons I decided against it. My painting turned to sketching and then to watercolors, which were easy to transport when I was out with Noah. I would try running now and again but it never stuck. So I stayed with the art, even though what I put on the page or the canvas never looked like I had planned it to. I did a lot of journaling for myself and the boys, and spent a lot of time putting my sketches onto my blog and looking at other people’s sketch blogs and wishing I was as good as they were. Then my dad’s cancer treatment stopped working and his health deteriorated fairly rapidly and I wrote poems nearly everyday to cope with it. After he died, I stopped sketching and soon journaling but the poems continued, for a while. Then it all stopped. It was all just too hard.

We moved back to Vermont and I again tried freelance graphic design only to discover that I really did not like being a graphic designer anymore. I was really struggling with the loss of my dad, the move, the stages the kids were in, and who I was. Then I began to trail run and it felt right, so I kept at it and that helped release some of the pain and frustration I felt and the extra pounds I was carrying. Yet something was still missing. I wanted to be writing more. Then I would remember the stress that having the blog caused me and I would think, I’ll write when the kids are in school and I have more time.

This past winter I began journaling again and I started carrying a small notebook in my pocket again. I got rid of all my old ideas that what I put in the small notebook had to be good, and I just put everything into it, thoughts, things I would hear, descriptions of people, the start of essays, poems, and random notes. Then I decided I would start writing for this blog again on a regular basis. I came up with a posting schedule and I developed an editing system. I read a book about writing called Writing Down the Bones and it opened my eyes.

When I recently agreed to write a monthly column about parenting for our local paper, it occurred to me that God had a plan that was not anywhere near my plan, but it was obviously a better plan. As hard as it is to stay home at times, it has allowed me to try all these different things with little risk. We have a greater freedom to spend time together as a family, and my writing has given me a creative outlet and a way to capture the little moments in life that are often lost to time. Running allows me to satisfy the adventurer in me and gives me time to clear my mind. I’m no longer looking for something else or thinking if I just do this I’ll feel better. I finally feel comfortable in the definition of who I am: a runner, a writer and a stay-at-home-dad riding the coat tails of his boys’ imagination.

The Mission

Essay

My brother, Tycen, is six years older than I am, and for obvious reasons, he did not want me tagging along with him and his friends when we were growing up. One summer day, though, he had no choice, and so I found myself crawling down the middle of a cold river fully clothed and pretending to be on a military mission.

Tycen and his friend, Josh, had a ‘“mission” of high importance planned for the day Mom told him he had to watch me. My brother had been fascinated with the military since he was young, and in turn so was I. (Unlike me, he turned his fascination in to a twenty-plus year career.) Undeterred by my presence, he told me to go get ready. I asked what the mission was but they told me it was top secret. I went and put on my Army fatigues.

We quickly moved across the openness of the backyard to the cover of the pine forest planted by our neighbors’ ancestors years before.  As quietly as two teenagers and a eight-year-old can, we moved along the hillside making our way down to the back of the neighbors’ pole barn at the edge of the forest. Here we paused to check the area for hostiles. One at a time we darted across the open lawn, jumping over the bank and sliding out of sight on a cushion of rust-colored pine needles. Once we regrouped, we proceeded the last twenty yards to the river.

Where we entered the river marked a fairly dramatic change in the landscape, and the last easy access point. Upriver the land came down gently to meet the banks and you could see the bridge where the road crossed over. Downriver hundred foot cliffs rose up from the water’s edge on the right and on the left was a steep embankment, covered in stinging nettles and thorns, that led to the back yards of the houses along the road. The river was strewn with rocks ranging in size from pebbles to boulders. We waded into the cold rushing water up to our ankles, and I was briefed on what the mission was. We were going to crawl down the river approximately a half mile to the local swimming hole which was known as The Dam. I protested about the crawling but only briefly. With that Tycen and Josh lay down in the water and started crawling. Luckily the river was deep enough and the current swift enough that I mainly floated using my hands to propel and at times steer me along.

We floated through a narrow tranquil pool that had a strip of sandy beach between the water and the nettles.  A little further down the river, the water moved in a tight frothing ribbon closer to the base of the cliff, then disappeared over a waterfall. We slipped out of the water and made our way along the shore, to the edge of a twenty-foot high horseshoe-shaped waterfall.  Tycen scouted around to see if there was an easy way for me to climb down but it was determined that was not an option. I would have to jump.

“Once you hit the water,” he told me, “swim as hard as you can to me. Your pockets will fill up with water and it will feel like your shoes are pulling you down. Just swim as hard as you can to me.”

Then he turned around and jumped off the water fall. I stood dumfounded for a moment. Then I saw him pop out of the water and swim to the edge of the pool below. I took a deep breath and jumped.

The section of the river after the waterfall and before The Dam has faded with time. But my first trip down the rock slide into the clear pool of The Dam is one of my strongest childhood memories.  The Dam was the place to swim; it was the place that you got to go when you were older.  Just a short walk up the hill from the center of town, it was tucked below an abandoned house and accessed by a steep narrow trail that opened onto wide area of rock that had been formed into something akin to stadium seating. On the far side, a cliff, covered with moss and a few scraggly pine trees, rose out of the pool. The downstream section of the pool was shallow. The upstream section was eight to ten feet deep, ringed partially by a ledge that reached four to six feet above the water.

The rock slide at The Dam is its main attraction. About a hundred feet in length it takes you from the top of a fairly steep pitch and propels you down off a waterfall into the clear pool below where the current pushes you towards the shallows. We stood at the top of the slide, and my brother again gave me the same instructions about swimming. Then he sat down on the sun warmed rocks  and  eased himself into the slipstream of the river. I waited until he had swum to the shallow end, and then I sat down and slowly slid my body in to the water. I felt the current begin to take me, and then I was rocketing downward. I saw my brother on the far side of The Dam watching intently, and then I was airborne for a moment before splashing into the water, feeling the current pushing me down. I opened my eyes and looked around the underwater world.  Feeling the weight of my pants and shoes pulling at my legs, I pushed towards the surface and began to kick with all my might.  It seemed I had such a long way to go but then my feet touched the rocky bottom and I turned around to look back at what I had just done.

Mission accomplished.