Kids with guns

Jonah woke up under the weather today, with a low-grade fever and a headache, and a lack of appetite that’s the opposite of everyday-morning-Jonah. We aren’t sure what brought it on because he was 100% himself all day yesterday, but I’m watching him sleep from where I’m sitting and have spent time alternately stroking his head and back and bundling him up in blankets throughout the day.

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Last night we attended a “crappy dinner party” at the home of some friends. It was raucous and lovely, a house full of kids (four of theirs, three of ours, and four belonging to another family) and was the first time that we’d met their oldest child, a sweet boy of nearly eleven. Jonah focused in on him as well as two other boys, and inquired about his nerf gun arsenal. Jonah couldn’t wait to show me the secret nerf gun cabinet (hidden in the wall of their midcentury modern home), and towards the end of the evening all but the two youngest children suddenly made the collective decision to play outside (despite the 40-degree temperatures). 

After some of the other parents got everyone bundled and headed outdoors, I learned that there were both nerf guns and cap guns headed out with them. I brushed away my own concerns and said that it would be fine. We don’t have toy guns at our house, with the exception of a couple of small squirt guns (which I only conceded to last Easter). Jonah knows how I feel about guns. We’ve told him repeatedly that guns only exist to hurt or kill people or animals, both of which are awful, so there’s no good reason for anyone to use guns. I used to tell him that we simply don’t believe in owning or using guns, but that people who do own them aren’t necessarily bad people, but I think it may have been after the Parkland shooting that I changed my tune and told the kids that guns are bad and owning them is bad. Full stop.

Jonah loves nerf guns. It was only after we moved here that they popped up on his radar because suddenly he was enrolled in a larger preschool with other boys his age and a number of his friends had a small arsenal of nerf guns. We decided that it was fine for him to play with them while visiting friends, but told him that they weren’t to shoot people (including one another) or animals, and could only shoot at inanimate targets or the air. Perhaps because they’re forbidden at our house, the nerf guns are always his first choice at friends’ houses.

My dad thinks that I’m overthinking this. He’s not a gun enthusiast by any means. He’s the kind of guy who gets genuinely worked up and emotional when a carnivore eats a baby animal on a wildlife show, but he knows what it’s like to be a five-year-old boy. Not long ago he wrote a Storyworth piece about his favorite toys as a child.

I had a number of favorite toys as a child but I guess they really could be listed in two categories; trucks and weapons…I still have my Fanner 50 pistol with all of the bullets that go around the back of the holster belt. I had a Rifleman Rifle and other pop type guns. Somewhere I still have the Rifleman Rifle.

In those days there were a lot of cowboy shows so it was only natural that we would migrate to toy guns. There was a show on TV in those days but I don’t recall the name. It might have been Yancy Derringer. The main character had a belt buckle with a derringer mounted in it that when he would be forced to raise his hands, he could tense his stomach and the derringer would flip out and fire. Mattel made a toy version of that belt buckle that worked like the TV version and would actually shoot a plastic bullet projectile. I wanted one of these so bad but my parents told me I couldn’t have one because it was quite dangerous and could put someone’s eye out. Imagine the surprise one day near my birthday, while at my dad’s office, that my folks gave me a present, and low and behold a derringer belt buckle. I still have it and have the bullets and projectiles to go with it. Reminds me of A Christmas Story.

I also remember receiving a toy M1 military style rifle. This particular model was made for kids at military school and they used them for parades and marching and the like. It was very realistic and had a bolt action. It was a cherished item when we played army.

When we lived on Hillcrest in Davenport, Iowa there was a ravine behind our house and between our street and the next. When I was young I remember my parents recalling that I called it the berveen. It was huge and ran the entire length of the block. I can’t tell you how great this was for the kids in our neighborhood. We played cowboys and Indians, we played army, the imagination and creativity of the ravine was endless. We would head out in the morning and be in the Ravine until the street lights came on. Who ever’s house we were closest to when it was lunch time was were we would grab lunch and keep on playing. Our parents never worried about us even though we would be gone all day long.

It was such a different time. People didn’t worry about school shootings or glorifying violence; they didn’t worry that their twelve-year-old child would be shot and killed by police for playing with a toy gun in a park. That said, the way he describes long days of playing outdoors with neighborhood friends and using his imagination is very much like the kind of childhood I’d like our kids to have.

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My dad, age 6

When Jonah was still a toddler, some friends with two boys of their own warned us that this would happen; that somehow boys just seem to gravitate to toy guns, no matter how pacifist their parents. “They’ll turn toast into a gun,” they told us. Jude does it too. Teachers at preschool recently spoke to me about his habit of pointing his finger at people and making a “pio pio” noise. He’s been asked to apologize for “shooting at” friends on more than one occasion. Our preschool forbids violent play and toys of any kind (which we appreciate) but it can’t very well prevent finger pistols. It also can’t stop parents from buying nerf guns and kids from loving them.

Back to last night. As we sat in front of the fireplace drinking wine, we watched through the floor-to-ceiling windows as the light dimmed and boys and girls from ages 4 to 10 ran around the yard engaged in a fierce battle. On more than one occasion Jude came to the door in a mess of sobs, terrified because the kids were shooting at him and he just wanted to ride a rocket ship toy in the driveway. We spoke to the boys more than once, and at one point I reminded Jonah that he was not to shoot at people. He looked me in the eye and said, with a look and a tone that almost frightened me, “yes we are because we are having a battle.” While I cautioned him not to speak to me that way, I decided to alter the rules (because given the circumstances they seemed absurd) and told him that he could only shoot at people who wanted to be shot at by virtue of the game.

It’s strange how the parameters of parenting evolve. They have to, I suppose, because our children grow and change and we can’t stop time. The other parents with us that night told us that they too wanted to avoid toy guns, and finally caved around six or seven years of age; it seems to be a common theme. Another family that we know tried to reassure me by telling me that while their son loves his nerf guns, he finds the concept of real guns to be absolutely terrifying. For him, at least, one does not correlate with the other.

I’m still not ready to lift the ban on toy guns at our house, though I have to admit that as I watched them engaged in their game last night, I said to our friends, “How great is this yard going to be when summer comes?” I recalled many magical summer nights with my own neighborhood friends, well past dark, building haunted houses in the woods and playing flashlight freeze tag. I was never a five-year-old boy and I had no brothers, but maybe this kind of play is the sort of thing that builds the magical memories that I have and that fueled my dad’s writing about his own childhood. So I’ll do my best to remain open to evolution, and try to find the balance between holding tight to my values while being willing to listen and learn what will make childhood magical for my own children.

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