Guns, Boys, and Steel: Should we put pretend weapons in our children’s hands?

My parents would not buy me toy guns. So, of course, I made my own. I built them out of sticks, construction toys, and anything else I could get my hands on. I envied my friends with their fully realistic M-16s, tommy guns, and pistols. But my father’s ban did not stop me. I played with guns, a lot, even if they were made of duct tape and doll legs. Still, my father’s disdain for weapons stuck with me. I’ve still never shot a real gun, and I’m a strong supporter of gun control. I had a poster on my wall in high school that displayed the shocking statistics of death by handgun in different first world nations. (Most recently, the U.S. had 9,369 murders by gun, compared to Spain with 97 and the UK with 14.  At least Columbia beat us with 21,898.) Following my parents lead, I told myself I would never let my kids have guns. Nine years and three kids into my career as a parent, and I’ve failed completely.

By the time my second born was four-years-old he had built an arsenal in the toy room that Rambo would be proud of.  He used a t-square as a pistol, a cache of sticks and plastic parts as his “battle knives,” paper towel tubes for rockets, and an assortment of odds and ends he called his “guns.”  Everything, he proved, could be a gun: candy canes, markers, his little sister’s diapers, a piece of toast with the bites in all the right places. If he had known about the NRA, he probably would have joined.

I blamed myself.  Years earlier, in a moment of whimsy and excitement, I tied a string to a stick and made both my boys bows.  It was to use in pretend play, of course. They had just seen Robin Hood, and they were acting out scenes. They needed the prop. I even bought them green tights. I didn’t expect that within days they would dump the clubs out of their toy golf bags and turn them into quivers. And my oldest would quickly find the right size stick he could use as an arrow. By the next week, he could hit a tree from across the yard.

But these weren’t guns. This was archery. Even Zen Buddhists talk about archery. Right? Well, it didn’t take long for our backyard to go from a quaint Sherwood Forest to a scene from Commando. My second son proved the most adept at acquiring gun knowledge quickly and integrating it into his daily play. We live in a gun culture. Classic cartoons and Disney films are filled with gun violence. I complained twice at my local Blockbuster—before bad karma shut the place down–for looping violent video game clips on a giant screen at the checkout line kiosk. We came to get the latest Backyardigans and suddenly my boys are watching Black Ops Death Kill XIV. I had to drag my son out of the store kicking and screaming. He’d finally found his people and I was cutting him off.

Watching boys grow up, you can almost start to believe that guns are in our blood.

Renowned theologian Walter Wink has spent his life trying to understand the lure of violence in our culture. He argues that we have built our beliefs around an ancient myth, the myth of redemptive violence. This is the idea which is repeated over and over in TV and movies: the idea that good must overcome evil through violence. He traces the myth back to the oldest known god stories from Babylonia and follows its path through religions and cultures up to today, where he shows how we have fully surrounded ourselves with it. The myth is that power comes through force, overt violence or sheer force of will, and it is the primary way to solve problems. For sure, in times of distress and uncertainty, it has become our first and most common reaction. Yet we never notice that it has failed quite consistently to solve most of our world problems. In fact, we accept the myth as a part of life. We say things like, it’s just the way we are. We believe the world is a chaotic and sometimes evil place that must be opposed by the forces of good, and a big army means a peaceful world.

Whether he is right or not (Read The Powers that Be by Walter Wink if you’re interested in hearing more), it is true that much of our lives are shaped by violence. I, myself, am a sucker for a good action film, which essentially is always the same story, or myth:  good guy battles evil, almost loses, then finally wins. As a high school teacher, I’m always shocked at how much of our history curriculum is about hopping from one war to the next. The History Channel should be renamed the World War II channel for the amount of time it spends on those few short years of history. I would never suggest downplaying the sacrifice and agony that has occurred during times of war, but couldn’t we give Gandhi and Martin Luther King equal treatment? Instead of always discussing what happened in our wars, shouldn’t we be discussing what worked and what didn’t? Is it possible to shift the myth in our heads that sees violence as the solution to all big problems?

Or is that just human nature?

I don’t believe so. Sure, we have violence in us. The fight or flight instinct is built into our DNA. That’s our animal side. But compassion is what makes us human. The core meaning of our lives comes through family, community, helping each other, working together in cooperation not in conflict. These should be the human traits we celebrate in our schools and with our children.

So take some time, between action films and superhero stories, to celebrate the redemptive power of sacrifice and compassion. Make sure your kids see alternative messages beyond the all-pervasive message that good must overcome evil with force. Violence does not just show its face with guns and knives, but with language and gestures. Consistently demonstrating how to handle conflict with patience and compassion will counter the myth we all see on TV and in movies, the myth that the best solution is force.

Until then, I’ll continue to try and curb the arsenal growing in our toy room, starting with this Barbie doll my son twisted around to look like a revolver.


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