Shoot ‘Em Up: Help! My Boy Is Obsessed With Guns

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Before I had children, I knew exactly how I would raise them (isn’t that always the case?). When my son was born, my husband and I were in complete agreement that our boy would never have toy guns or weapons of any kind in our house. We are peaceful people who don’t like seeing kids playing with water guns or pretending to shoot each other. We don’t like swords and we certainly don’t like slingshots. So we were proud of our decision to raise our son to be kind, gentle and non-violent. And for the first four years of his life, our parenting values were firmly held in place.

We never strayed from our beliefs. Our son wanted to watch Spiderman and Scooby Doo; we felt they were inappropriate because of both the language and violence. He wanted a Super Soaker that resembled an M-16, we said no way. Standing firm, we thought, was going to work. Until the day my son and I were playing in our backyard, that is. He was spraying the hose everywhere, turning our sandbox into a mud pit and blasting the water at our huge trees. I sat down to watch him, content that I could take a little break, and he was perfectly happy playing with the water by himself. But he seemed to be spending an awfully long time spraying the water under one particular tree. I wandered over and asked him what he was doing.

“I’m killing the ants with my gun, Mommy.” What!? I was shocked to even hear the words kill and gun come out of my sweet, innocent boy’s mouth. I was dismayed that after explaining to him that the ants were living creatures and had family and friends who loved them, that he kept the spray trained on his prey, and was only satisfied when he thought had “deaded” them all. What had happened to the values we had worked so hard to instill in him?

My husband and I doubled our efforts to teach our boy that violence was wrong. But instead of stopping him, it only seemed to excite him more. Almost every day after preschool, we’d ask him what he did and, inevitably, the words that spilled out of his mouth would be “shooter,” “bad “guy and “dead.” I was worried and upset. Was my son displaying early criminal tendencies? I called the school to discuss it with them. They assured me it was a normal phase that boys went through, and they were taking steps to teach the children that violence hurts people, and that only the people who protect us, such as police officers, should carry guns.

I still felt uneasy so I frantically called my mom who had raised my brother and who’s always my voice of reason in those panicky parenting moments. She assured me that it was a stage and reminded me about the toy guns my brother and I had played with and the violent cartoons we’d watched as kids. I also discussed my fears with my calm, level-headed mother-in-law because she herself had raised three boys. She told me that kids worked through their fears by acting them out. My son was afraid of bad guys, and he felt in control if he could “dead” them. Still, I felt that I had to do something to teach him that weapons were used to kill people and not toys to play with.

Then Cars 2 came out. Have you parents seen the first Cars movie? It’s fantastic. It teaches about learning from your mistakes, friendship and loyalty. It sends the message that winning isn’t everything. But Cars 2? Totally different.

I was stoked that his preschool was taking the kids on a class trip to see Cars 2. I was also a bit sad that I would miss being with him at his first movie. But knowing how much he loved all of the characters and thanks to the books and toys he’d received for his fourth birthday, he knew everything about the sequel. But then I heard some grumbling from the parents. Did I realize what the movie was about? Did I know what my son was going to watch? Assuming it would be an action-packed, yet age-appropriate kid movie like the first one, I wasn’t worried. But as the other parents were concerned, I surfed my trusty Google and was appalled by what I found.

Explosions. Guns. Bombs. Espionage. Bullying. Death. These were the themes of the film my little boy was about to see. Should I not let him go to school that day? Should I stop him from seeing the movie he hadn’t stopped talking about for weeks? I was torn and confused. As his mom, I was supposed to monitor what he saw and ensure that he wouldn’t be negatively influenced by outside forces. But it dawned on me that unless I homeschooled him (something I considered for half a second), I couldn’t stop him from learning about weapons and death. And knowing what I was like as a kid (rebellious, strong-willed and mouthy), I knew full well that trying to keep him away from things I didn’t like would only serve to increase their appeal. And should I try to stop him from acting out these wild bad guy fantasies and imagining himself as the superhero who saves the day?

Parenting experts and child psychologists say no. Michael K. Meyerhoff, executive director of The Epicenter Inc., a family advisory and advocacy agency, maintains that there is no scientific proof that childhood play with toy weapons leads to violent adult behavior. It calms me somewhat to know that my son’s current obsession with getting the bad guys will not turn him into a criminal later in life. And my mother and mother-in-law, as usual, were right. Playing with toy weapons and wanting to hurt the bad guys is a way of gaining power over them; it is the paradigmatic good vs. evil. By role-playing scenarios in which he is victorious against evil, my son is showing how good and powerful he is. 

But is this gun play innate to boys? Do little girls hold sticks like rifles and shoot at everything in their path? As politically incorrect as this notion is these days (think of the genderless baby fiasco), there are biological tendencies toward toys based on gender. A 14-year study, conducted by Richard Wrangham of Harvard University and co-author Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College, concluded that there are gender-based preferences over toys. When juvenile monkeys of both sexes were offered dolls or trucks, the male monkeys grabbed for the trucks; the girls, for the dolls. Joyce Benenson, associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College believes that this study supports her own research that “biological mechanisms (underlie) children’s toy preferences” and “suggests … a biological basis for human sex differences.”

So, as my son listens to a kid version of James Bond give spy instructions from his brand new Finn McMissile car, dresses like Spiderman and pretends a stick is a gun, I have to remember that this is a stage. It’s not one I’m particularly comfortable with, but far be it for me to stand in the way of my son overpowering evil. I’m all for enriching his imagination and creativity. As the mother of a four-year-old and one-year-old, I’ve realized that much of good parenting is about going with the flow: encouraging my children’s interests is the best way to nurture them towards their growing independence. This independence hurts me sometimes, but it also makes me proud that they are who they are.

This doesn’t mean, however, that anything goes. We still will not allow toy guns in our house. When we felt that this role-playing was teetering on dangerous, my husband and I wanted our son to know that superheroes want justice, not death. And while it is good to fight the bad guys, it doesn’t have to be with violence. What’s important are the consequences for your actions. As he enters school and the influence of his friends will only get stronger, we can’t pretend that the world is always a safe, happy place. All we can do is nurture his imagination, foster his creativity and satisfy his curiosity. For now, that seems to mean allowing him the opportunity to explore the apparent thrill of bad guys and weapons. Eventually, it will probably be girls who spark his interest – and by then we’ll be wishing he was still in his superhero days.

(Photo: Jupiterimages)