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The family's arsenal

Got a problem with toy guns? You shouldn't

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"There will be no guns in this house," I once declared, when I was new to parenting, thought I knew what I was doing and my first child was a wobbly toddler obsessed with trains.

I now duck and dodge while writing this, foam Nerf bullets whizzing past my head, as my six- and eight-year-old boys engage in heavy battle.

After years of throwing away toy guns given by grandparents, disarming every Star Wars guy who came locked and loaded in his cryo-freeze plastic packet and even allowing only squirt guns shaped like spitting dolphins, I gave up.

Christmas of 2010, Daddy bought every male in the house a full Nerf arsenal. And they had the best Christmas morning ever, chasing each other up the stairs, down the hall, into the garden, through Grandma's pansies. Pop! Pop! Pop!

Got a problem with that? You shouldn't.

It's hard, of course, not to think of those 20 small bodies inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut every time the topic of children and guns comes up.

The only place darker for a parent to go than imagining your child killed by a gun is wondering what it would be like to raise the gunman. And some of us decide we'll do everything in our power to prevent it.

But then we get crazy and common sense goes out the window.

Take, for example, the six-year-old boy in Silver Spring, Md., who was suspended last month for pointing his finger like a gun at another child. The parents got an attorney, and the school reversed the suspension last week.

Each year, these stories make headlines, reminding us of how crazy and confused we've become.

But in the process, lots of parents and teachers are doing some soul-searching on where the limits are.

At least twice a year, Joshua Weiner, a child psychiatrist based in McLean, Va., gets a patient like this, a child suspended from school because he pretended to use a gun or said he would.

"It didn't surprise me at all that that kid was suspended," Weiner said. "The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction."

And never once has one of the children sent to him after being suspended from school shown any serious signs of trouble.

But instead of taking the child to the school counsellor for a frank and honest evaluation and realizing what a kid means when he is playing the role that just about every American male has played in the past two centuries, too many schools take the hard line and yank the kid from class. That creates far more problems than it solves, Weiner said. "For a six-year-old, they don't quite know what they're saying," he explained.

Weiner has a six-year-old. One day, his son was asking Weiner and his wife about his birth. Weiner and his wife carefully described the C-section that brought their boy into the world.

"Did you bleed, Mommy?" the child asked.

They said yes.

"Did you die, Mommy?" he wondered.

Nope, kids don't always get what the realities of violence and death are.

Weiner said his son has some toy guns. Weiner doesn't have a problem with it. It's all about common sense, he said.

In fact, there are some folks who suggest these deeply ingrained routines of violent role-playing are essential to a child's development.

In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones argues that boys especially, since they won't be out hunting mastodons with dad, need ways to act out power and victory and triumph.

After all, the options we give them today -- games in which every child is a winner -- don't afford the alpha and omega of the human experience.

Lenore Terr, a child psychiatrist in San Francisco who specializes in childhood trauma, said in Jones's book how she explained the toy guns she kept in her office.

"I'd tell them that they need to shoot: They need to shoot each other, they need to shoot their parents, they need to shoot me," Terr said. "It's one of the best tools they have for dealing with their aggressions, and taking that away from them only complicates the problems that the people who want to get rid of toy guns are concerned about."

Yup. I quickly learned that taking away the guns, forbidding any cartoons that show guns and never introducing my sons to violent video games resulted in two little boys who chewed their toast into L shapes and shot one another.

And how could I possibly ban the big, plastic, orange and yellow Nerf guns without a nod to my old Slavia 631 air rifle?

I was six years old when my dad first taught me how to shoot it and seven when I had full permission to get it out of the closet and shoot it anytime I wanted to.

I spent hours in the backyard, hands greasy from the .177 Crosman pellets my dad taught me to oil and hold between my teeth while I broke the barrel to load, shooting at cans and paper targets.

So far, I haven't shot anyone.

It's never one thing that leads to tragedy.

"Predicting violence is just incredibly, incredibly hard to do," Weiner said.

It's not just guns. A generation of men grew up with cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers and war games, an era immortalized in the Child's Room display at the NRA's National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.

But add to that a culture of graphic, violent movies, super-realistic video games and the availability of the kinds of weapons made for hunting humans, not just Hamm's beer cans, and you've got a problem.

It's a delicate time for teachers and parents when it comes to this issue right now. But overreacting to the way kids interpret the world around them can be dangerous, too.

I called my dad to see if he still had the Slavia.

"You bet! You want me to send it to the boys?" he asked, more excited than I'd heard him in years.

"No," I told him. "Just keep it in the closet for now."

Maybe we can teach the boys to shoot it the next time we visit my parents.

 

Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J11

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