Boys and Their War Games

I have boys. I have come to the conclusion that boys are born knowing how to make car sounds and gun noises and how to pretend to fly an airplane. My kids watch tame shows like "Dragontales" and "Arthur" (aside from "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heros," which I regret introducing them to), don't play video games really, and yet they've been playing "war". It's an odd sort of war, wherein whenever they want to change or fix their Duplo guns, my oldest yells, "Pause war!", they do whatever they need to do with their Duplo creations, and then he yells, "Unpause war!" and they go back to "shooting" with their Duplo guns and making the "Ttttttt" noise of a machine gun.

There are things about these war games that I like. One is that they are playing an imaginative(-ish) game without the need for the TV screen. Another is that they are building with Duplos, of which we have seven million, and which are safe for the baby if they're left around the living room...which they are. I'm even kind of impressed with the "guns" they build.

But I mostly really don't like these games. My middle son completely doesn't understand what he's doing, doesn't have a sense of what it means to "kill" someone, doesn't get that war is not something to laugh about. He's three and a half. But my oldest is on this weird cusp between understanding what death is without a concept that shooting someone with a gun will kill them. He doesn't, though, understand what war really is, and I'd really like to keep them sheltered as long as possible. There are enough worries in this world that they'll have to take on eventually. Let kids be kids.

I realize that generations upon generations of boys (and girls) have played shoot-out games - Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers - and that someone is always the "bad guy," and you go outside with your cap guns and run around in the backyard "shooting" each other and having a grand old time. And most of those people are not violent when they grow up (like, say, my mother). But somehow it still feels wrong to me to "play war." Maybe it's because they lack that very understanding of what the game is about. They're playing at something without knowing what they're pretending to do. It would be like pretending to cook without ever having seen someone do so, or pretending to work a cash register without having ever been to a store. It's a game without reference.

It's good that my boys haven't had to be exposed to war. I'd like them to be able to maintain that innocence. We are a country at war, but thanks to our volunteer military, my boys don't have to worry about their Daddy (or Mommy) going overseas. But some of their friends do. Somehow, playing at war feels like they wish it were something they knew more about, when I hope for them that they never have to find out. Certainly, boys are interested in fighter planes and helicopters, guns and bombs, tanks, jeeps, and the great naval ships. Heck, I'm interested in them, too. But there's a difference between an academic interest in war paraphernalia and machinery and building it out of Duplos and throwing Duplos at each other when they drop a "bomb." (Also, it hurts to get hit with a Duplo.)

What I'm beginning to understand is that as much as I try to protect my boys from the world at large, they're going to learn about it. They learn about it from other kids at the park or at school or at synagogue. They learn about it tangentially from conversations between their parents, or video games their dad plays. They learn about it at Starbucks, when they ask why we would buy a pound of coffee for "the troops." They'll learn about it if one of their friend's moms or dads is deployed and the friend mentions it. War is out there, all around us, especially living where we do, near the largest Marine base in the country.

This means that it's my job, rather than to protect them from knowledge, to make sure they have the correct knowledge. And that applies to more than just guns and airplanes, of course. Since they're sure to learn about the world from other people, I have to make sure that they have accurate information. So when they play their war games, I tell them to never point even a Duplo gun directly at another person. I ask that they play as allies and fight monsters or imaginary bad guys, rather than each other. If they want to learn about fighter planes, we find information on the internet or watch a documentary about flight. If they want to know more about guns, one day, we can teach them. Perhaps we can even take them to a firing range when they're old enough (there's one just a few miles from us) to teach them to respect weapons and understand their use. And if they are playing war with their friends, hey, at least they're running around and getting some exercise, and hopefully some of the lessons we've taught them will stick.

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