A gun-crazy 7-year-old worries his mom


(Hadley Hooper/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 5, 2012

Q. My 10-year-old son didn’t go through a superhero stage, but his 7-year-old brother greatly admires military heroes, and I don’t know how to handle the subject.

I think he is drawn to them because we live in a military area; he builds model airplanes to help his hand/eye coordination, and his latest library books have been about Theodore Roosevelt.

His play, however, is all about guns, bombs and violence even though my husband and I don’t own any guns nor do I let my boys wear camo. It seems disrespectful to let them play in camouflage when there are soldiers who die in their camo.

We do let the boys play outside with squirt guns and “Star Wars” swords, however, and I also encourage our younger son to get good grades and be good in sports so he can go to West Point, because that’s what he wants to do.

Because our family tries hard to respect all people, I don’t want my son to think that it’s okay to hate a group of people, nor do I think that the world is black and white. But how do I explain that to a 7-year-old? How do I teach my boy that both sides do bad things when they fight and that neither side really wins?

And how do I balance our country’s need to serve and to protect us when my son talks about blowing things up? How do I applaud the military without encouraging him to think that guns bring us power and strength?

A. Your worry is misplaced.

Your son isn’t glamorizing guns; he has simply turned 7, which can be a rather fearful age. Suddenly children realize that the world is bigger than they thought it was and that a gun will probably protect them better than anything else. And if they don’t have a gun, they’ll use a stick and if they don’t have a stick, they’ll point their fingers and say, “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!”

Although it’s probably still politically incorrect to say so, you’ll usually see this behavior in boys much more than girls, because the sexes are fundamentally different in some areas, and this is one of them. Somehow it’s bred in the bone: A man is supposed to protect himself and the people he loves and a woman is supposed to nurture them. These behaviors, which show up in the early years, are as instinctive as parenting was for you.

You took your boys to the park because you knew that they needed to run and climb, and you balanced these activities with art supplies, blocks, a housekeeping corner, a dress-up box and trips to the library, week after week, so they would be well-rounded people when they grew up.

And all the while you wove good values and good sense into your conversations, which was just what your boys needed; parents have more influence over their children than anyone else — as long as they’re willing to use it.

The way you use this influence also matters, especially as your children get older, and so does the timing. There’s no need to talk about war and peace with your son when he’s chasing the boy next door with a sword, but you can talk with him and his brother about it at the dinner table, and you can ask provocative questions that will really make them think.

“What should our country do about this war in Syria?” you might ask. “Should we step in or should we stay out?” “Should we use drones?” “But what if we kill an innocent child?”

Whatever you ask, let your children do most of the talking and then sit back and listen to their conclusions, even if you don’t agree with them. The more you encourage these philosophical discussions, the more your boys are likely to reach the last stage of moral development described by Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, a height so high that he said only 10 percent of us ever get there. If your boys are among them, feel blessed. They will be able to stand on the mountaintop — all alone if they must — and do and say what’s right, whatever the consequences might be. This is parenting at its best.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Sept. 20.

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