Boys and Gun Love: Should We Ban Gunplay?

The men in my life suggest my concerns about gunplay are as unreasonable as such school crackdowns. I caught our sixty-seven-year-old godfather teaching my sons how to turn blades of sea-grass into guns, a game he had played as a boy. My sons’ father argued that he and his brother had spent hours tossing fake bombs over the neighbors’ bushes. Now, he is a public school teacher and his brother is an anti-war Democrat, a social worker, and a Buddhist.

Veteran Kindergarden and Pre-K teacher Lisa Stapp of Edna Maguire Elementary, Mill Valley, CA says, “Boys are always making weapons out of cubes,” but she believes that it is the adult’s job to explore it rather than squash it, “If you explore it more, you start to draw out a scenario and eventually the violence gets neutralized into an engaging play of some sort— (whereas if you ban it) we end up shaming children” which causes problems down the road. “Every time we say stop, we curtail all that brain growth.”

Psychotherapist Lele Diamond, a specialist in Post Traumatic Stress and childhood development concurs that, “…aggressive play is a child’s laboratory, (it is)… really helpful—both to channel it and temper it.” As long as the parent or educator sets limits that allow for all children to be safe, she suggests that aggressive play is not only healthy, but a necessary tool for children’s social-emotional development. Kids know the difference between “pretend” aggression and real aggression—we adults should not conflate the two.

 So if gunplay is healthy, perhaps even necessary, then what about toy guns?" target="_blank" class="expanded">Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin, educators who have studied the impact of war play, suggest that when it comes to gunplay or war toys—the best kinds of toys are those crafted by the kids themselves—open-ended toys like Legos, blocks, sticks, cardboard boxes, toys that can transform from guns to magic wands to towers, for example. This way the child is in charge of the play, rather than the toy being in charge of the child. They explain that when TV was deregulated in the 1980s, children lost all of the protections that had heretofore kept them from being commercially exploited. This, in turn, led to a complete change in the way children played. “The emphasis in play shifted from ‘What can I do with this toy?’ to ‘Can I get another one?’  Toy-driven play does not foster the kind of imaginative problem solving skills that help children figure out right from wrong, good from bad, and their place in the group. 

Yet, is gunplay okay for all kids? Diamond suggests that for kids who grow up in neighborhoods plagued by violence—parents have a right, even a duty, to tow a different line. “It’s a life and death issue—it’s worth a tooth and nail fight,” because the kind of violent play some of these boys engage in is not creative play, but “role practicing—it’s part of their real word…) and if “the moms come down hard (against gunplay in these situations) it’s because they need to.”

My introspective son Aidan asks me to play at the carnival gun range, so I say yes; I try to remember it’s just a game; When I aim, the water shoots into the clown’s mouth making an orange, red, blue, green balloon inflate until POP! I think of my grandfather whose access to a hunting pistol made it that much easier to take his own life, at the age of forty-three—a trauma that took him from his young wife, four children, and his future grandchildren (myself included)— a trauma that continues to reverberate through our family generations later—the echo of that violence rippling outward.

Aidan’s green balloon explodes first and he wins a small blue whale. But Aidan wanted the biggest stuffed animal—the one the man says we cannot have, so instead we are down ten dollars and my son isn’t even satisfied. Has he learned something? I think not, because although we return year after year, the cheap toys end up in the trash and every year my sons forget, seduced once more by the barker, who may as well be shouting, “Be a man! Be a man! Shoot a gun and you’ll be strong, tough, invincible!”

Psychologists write, “The media serves up as role models Neanderthal professional wrestlers, hockey “goons,” ready at the slightest provocation to drop their sticks and pummel an opponent; multi-millionaire professional athletes in trouble with the law, demanding “respect” from fans and the press; and angry, drug-using, misogynist rock-stars…These are not visions of manhood that celebrate emotional introspection or empathy.” And yet these educators suggest that the only way to raise healthier boys (ones able to master their aggressive impulses) is to “…give our boys an emotional vocabulary and the encouragement to use it, (so that) they will unclench their hearts.”

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