Mamarama: Boys and Their Guns

The other day I was at a playground watching my friend’s son gather a swat team of boys while he shared his collection of toy guns and rifles. The team was assembled; the boys hashed-out the game rules and began their dramatic enactment of a siege or coup that I didn’t bother to understand.

What sparked my interest was when a dad of two involved boys came over with fire in his eyes. He firmly scolded the boys for touching the toy guns and demanded they put them down and leave the game. Not so surprising — I’ve seen that before in the playgrounds of Jersey City; we’re a pretty liberal, peace-loving group of progressive parents for the most part. Yet, what was noteworthy to me was seeing those boys’ heads hang so low with disappointment they nearly scraped their chins on the wood chips. “Oh, you don’t allow them to play with guns?” I asked, stating the obvious. He tersely shook his head with an emphatic and silent “No.” And within that tacit response I felt a wave of judgment roll its way toward me for my assumed involvement.

“Does this happen to you a lot?” I asked the ring-leader’s dad once the coast was clear.

“In fact, it does,” he sighed. “Mostly in New York and Jersey City playgrounds where parents are more liberal-leaning politically, I get some push-back when we bring our arsenal to the park,” he explained. What does politics have to do with it, I wondered. Can you be “politically correct” and let your child play with toy guns? Does anyone even strive to be “politically correct” anymore? How do OUR political and social leanings filter through to child’s play?

For these answers I went directly to the best source: parents themselves. Using my coterie of parental comrades via the Jersey City Family Initiative, I polled parents of boys, asking what their feelings were on gun play.

What I heard was a very similar refrain, essentially paraphrased by: “We were opposed at first, then realized there was little we could do to stop it.” In case after case, it appeared that most little boys shared what one mom called the “gun gene” whereby any protruding object could be transformed into a weapon of sorts. For example, a bitten sandwich, a hand, a stick, a pretzel, even a 3-D peace sign could make an acceptable makeshift rifle.

One mom who has worked in the school system for years said conclusively, “My experience is this: if a young male child can make a gun, he will.” She went on to use her students as an example, “In my high school art studio I have to hide the staple guns -– guess why? A student will literally walk up to the basket where they are stored, pick it up and immediately hold it like a gun in the air and shoot.”

Another mom pointed out that though swords and light sabers are more socially acceptable than guns, they actually do more physical harm as kids tend to hit each other with them. But swords alone did not satisfy her son. She added that he “would shoot with his fingers if he had nothing else. I found that as soon as I gave him a toy gun his interest in guns and shooting decreased dramatically.”

This comment made me wonder about the two brothers who had to stop their game in mid-delight. Will that act (and many before and after) unwittingly create a lust for the forbidden – and how might that father respond to such a notion? You could say that he was justified in being annoyed; perhaps public spaces are not the place for such activities. One parent offered that she never brought guns to the playground for just that reason “they were meant for home use.” Good idea, but the dad in this story says that organized team gun play is his son’s absolute favorite recreational pastime. “And I would rather have him running around creating survival strategies than playing a video game,” he reasoned. “Guns were demystified in my house. I know for a fact that I would have obsessed over them had they been forbidden.”

Regarding “gun deprivation,” one mom of a now-adult child reported that she and her son’s extended family were all adamantly against gun play. “He would make his own guns out of whatever he had on hand, but we all discouraged it,” she explained. “This same boy just finished his first year at West Point and we are all scratching our heads trying to figure out how this happened.”

A psychologist mom in the group weighed-in with some more philosophical points. “There may very well be an instinct (whether hormonal or early evolutionary-survival) to be able to hunt and be the defender/protector/aggressor. Alternatively, it may be a way to defend against feelings of vulnerability, especially given the messages in our culture about wars and fighting. So it seems that gun play may be linked to competition and aggression in a very deep-seated and complex way.”

She continues, “Otherwise, I think it is harmless, or may even serve some purpose for the child, especially if the gun play is folded into a story line rather than used with no context, if it is just one of many forms of play, and if the investment in gun play is mild to moderate.”

So there’s a vote for moderation with a possible anthropological explanation. But does that appease a parent who considers banning gun play just part of an enlightened behavioral lifestyle? It’s kind of like saying, “We compost, we recycle, we are civil libertarians, we don’t support war –- and as a result, we don’t approve of gun play.”

I think what’s interesting to note is that nature vs. nurture creates an inner parental conflict sometimes. It reminds me of when artist Art Spiegelman and his wife gave their daughter trucks and trains to play with, so as not to foster sexist forms of assumed gender play. They threw their arms up in exasperation when they noticed she had wrapped a fire engine up in a blankie and was giving it a bottle.

There are many parents who have had to grapple with their own leanings in order to yield to their child’s needs and forms of expression. “When my firstborn was a toddler,” one mom recalls, “I used to be super judgmental of the older boys on the playground whose parents let them play guns or weapons, thinking the parents just weren’t ‘progressive.’ Yeah, I was that parent.”

And though she observes that there is a lot of social pressure to discourage gun play now, she too concedes that, “Male children just have the need to shoot stuff out of oblong objects.”

I think it’s understood and widely accepted that there is no evidence that links toy gun play to homicidal behavior, or that it leads down a slippery slope to shooting spree rampages. I’ll let this dad offer his seemingly accurate observation, “Shooting guns is satisfying for many. Boys like toy guns beyond belief; perhaps it satisfies some primal urge for noise and action. When I was young, the more real the gun, the better it was. Many people who played with guns managed to avoid being mass murderers.”

I think most rational parents understand that playing cops and robbers with toy pistols does not lead to nefarious and anti-social adult behaviors, yet there is a sense that the parents polled have all learned something from their children: We are wired in a particular way that defies logic and up-bringing, including all the good intentions you may have for us.

While there are many nuances in the gun play arena (“Nerf only — not assault rifles,” “Okay to get as gift — not okay to buy,” “Don’t shoot at someone not in the game,” “Home-only — not public play,” etc.,) ultimately the choice is highly personal and I’m not sure we can apply a “right or wrong” edict to this example. If your child is a reflection of you and you’re a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, you may dismiss the “gun gene” theory and instill a kinder, gentler type of play despite your son’s protestations. The examples presented here offer wisdom that comes from the older parent, perhaps saving you the trouble of finding out for yourself, or giving you further inspiration to stick to your guns on this topic.

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.