Guns are a prolific problem in our country. An estimated 91 people die a day as a result of gun violence, yet no common sense gun control has been passed by the Senate or Congress. Last week, the image of a three-year old standing on a toilet, demonstrating a mass shooter “lock down” drill she learned at school, served as a disturbing reminder our nation’s children are in imminent danger.
As a parent, I am forced to ask myself, what can I do to prevent gun violence from affecting my own children and family? What variables are within my control?
Many months ago, I wrote about my commitment to ask parents if they keep guns in the home prior to my children or family spending time in those spaces. Since then, I’ve realized I also need to ask parents and caregivers if they keep guns in their cars, which are considered personal property so a gun license is not required. My children are not allowed to be in a home or a car if there is an unsecured gun present. This feels like a straight-forward and reasonable parenting decision.
I still struggle, however, with how to handle my four-year-old’s attraction to aggressive play and imaginary games that incorporate guns. For the first time (and I know not the last), my son was influenced by his peers at school. He attends a cross-age program, so he was in a classroom with five and six-year olds even though he was only three at the start of the year. “Star Wars” was a favorite playground game and my son came home with a flurry of questions like, “who is Darth Vader?”, “what is a light saber?” and “do you know the rebels have blasters (AKA guns)?” The more he learned about characters and weapons from his classmates, the more his fascination grew.
In many ways, my husband and I have tried to embrace my son’s interest in Star Wars. I purchased a few educational workbooks that centered characters from the movies. Oh my goodness, my son has never been more motivated to practice writing and coloring skills!
On a whim, my husband played Darth Vader’s infamous Imperial March and life has literally never been the same. Multiple times a day, you will find my family marching around to the ominous tune. We now even use the Imperial March to help us transition to bedtime, a historically rough 30-45 minutes in our household. We play the song then march directly upstairs at its conclusion for bath and bed. It’s been somewhat revolutionary.
While I’m certainly no super fan, I enjoy Star Wars and clearly, we’re using our son’s current obsession in ways that feel appropriate and helpful for our family. But in light of the horrific gun violence in our country, when my son wants to incorporate gun play into his Star Wars games, an internal red flag goes up. We do not have any toy guns in our home, so he uses Legos or magnet tiles to create “blasters” or fighter planes, some of which I must admit are pretty impressive.
Yet, a flurry of concerns flow through my mind when my son plays with imaginary guns. I think about Tamir Rice, and the countless other brown and black children who do not have the privilege to play with guns without potentially devastating consequences. I think about the harm and destruction guns cause in our country on a daily basis.
I think about how I did not grow up playing with guns and do not feel like I missed out on some right of passage. My Mom was openly anti-gun. Not only were we not allowed to have any type of toy gun in our household, none of our friends were allowed to set foot on our property with a toy gun. Neighborhood kids knew to lay down their weapons at the base of our driveway before running up to ring our doorbell or come inside to play.
When I brought up my concerns about the Star Wars games to my son’s teachers, they gave me a book that normalizes gun play with young children. I know developmentally, at age four, it’s appropriate for my son to be fixated on “good guys” versus “bad guys”, right versus wrong, good versus evil. I know aggressive play is normal. But guns…I just can’t get fully on board with the idea that gun play is necessary.
I’ve therefore made the personal decision that I will not participate in gun play with my son and I’ve explained to him why using simple, concrete language. When he wants me to play Star Wars, I say something like “I will play with you as long as we agree there will be no guns or blasters. I don’t like to play guns, because in real life guns hurt people.” He has heard versions of this enough to not miss a beat and we adapt the characters and story lines to omit guns. The game is often aggressive in nature, but this feels like a good compromise.
My husband does not have such firm boundaries around gun play and I know my son plays versions of Star Wars with his friends, so he has opportunities to experiment with pretend weapons. I’m okay with that for now.
We do have specific rules that we try to reinforce when he’s playing Star Wars or any game that is physical and/or aggressive in nature:
1) He is not allowed to point at or pretend to shoot anyone who hasn’t agreed to play the game. This is adapted for any weapon being used (light sabers, fighter planes, etc).
2) If someone at any point expresses a desire to no longer play the game, he must respect that choice immediately.
Really, these are lessons about consent. And like all rules, they are a work in progress.
As my son matures, I know we will have more in-depth discussions about guns, gun violence and the many layers of intersecting politics that create the realities of our society. I know it’s going to be an uphill battle to keep toy guns and weapons away from my children. I will likely have to forbid my children from playing with a friend because their parents keep guns in their home or their car. I will likely have arguments with my kids over video games they want to play or movies they want to watch that I deem too violent (for now, Star Wars is off-limits). But these are conversations and fights worth having.
What’s your take on gun play? Do you allow it? Do you ban it altogether? I’d love to hear how you handle it in your family below.