As the father of four kids younger than 9, I confess to being an overly obsessive and doting parent. I secretly follow my 8-year-old son, Benjamin, when he goes out on his bike, to make sure that he doesn't ride in the middle of the street. I hover inches over my 18-month-old daughter, Madie, at the playground to make sure that she doesn't eat sand. I am the very model of the risk-averse parent. Yet for some parents in my neighborhood, my kids and I are the risk to be avoided, even if it means removing their children when we show up at the park. The reason: toy guns.
I first noticed the "shunning" at the most unlikely of events. Each year on Labor Day, my Alexandria community has a "Wheel Day" parade in which hundreds of kids convert their bikes, scooters and wagons into different fantasy vehicles. Last year, we turned our red wagon into a replica Conestoga wagon with real sewn canvas over wooden ribs, wooden water barrels, quarter horse -- and, yes, plastic rifles. It was a big hit and the kids won first prize for their age group. The celebration, however, was short lived. As soon as one mother spotted the toy rifles inside the wagon, she pulled her screaming children out of the event, announcing that she would not "expose them" to guns.
I must confess to feeling a mix of deep guilt and even deeper rage at that moment. It was not as though my kids were reenacting the massacre of a Cherokee village; they were simply living out innocent fantasies of the Old West. After some grumbling, my friends and I eventually dismissed the matter as some earth mother gone berserk.
But then it happened again.
My 4-year-old son, Aidan, brought his orange Buzz Lightyear plastic ray gun to "the pit," as our neighborhood playground is known. As he began pursuing an evildoer -- his 6-year-old brother, Jack -- around the playground, a mother froze with an expression of utter revulsion. Glaring alternately from Aidan to me, she waited for a few minutes before grabbing her son and proclaiming loudly that he could not play there "if that boy is going to be allowed to play with guns."
While such "zero-tolerance" parents still seem to be a minority, this is a scene that seems to be repeating itself with increasing regularity. To these parents, my wife and I are "gun-tolerant" and therefore corruptors of children who should be avoided. Not only are such toys viewed as encouraging aggressive behavior and violent attitudes, they are also seen as reinforcing gender stereotypes, with boys playing with guns or swords and girls playing with dolls or cooking sets.
My wife and I are hardly poster parents for the National Rifle Association. We are social liberals who fret over every detail and danger of child rearing. We do not let our kids watch violent TV shows and do not tolerate rough play. Like most of our friends, we tried early on to avoid any gender stereotypes in our selection of games and toys. However, our effort to avoid guns and swords and other similar toys became a Sisyphean battle. Once, in a fit of exasperation, my wife gathered up all of the swords that the boys had acquired as gifts and threw them into the trash. When she returned to the house, she found that the boys had commandeered the celery from the refrigerator to finish their epic battle. Forced to choose between balanced diets and balanced play, my wife returned the swords with strict guidelines about where and when pirate fights, ninja attacks and Jedi rescues could occur.
When I began to research this issue, I found a library of academic studies with such engaging titles as "Longitudinal Stability of Personality Traits: A Multitrait-Multimethod-Multioccasion Analysis." The thrust was that gender differences do exist in the toys and games that boys and girls tend to choose. The anecdotal evidence in my neighborhood (with more than 60 young kids in a four-block radius) was even clearer: Parents of boys reported endless variations on the celery swords. There seems to be something "hard-wired" with the XY chromosome that leads boys to glance at a small moss-covered branch and immediately see an air-cooled, camouflaged, fully automatic 50-caliber Browning rifle with attachable bayonet.
Many parents can relate to Holley and Warren Lutz, who thought that after their daughter Seeley, they could raise her little brother, Carver, in a weapon-free house. Holley realized her error when she gave 10-month-old Carver a Barbie doll and truck one day. The little boy examined both and then proceeded to run Barbie over repeatedly with the truck. By 2, he was bending his sister's Barbies into L-shapes and using them as guns.
One of my neighbors, Tracy Miller, a child psychologist and mother of three girls and a boy, found that her son instinctively gravitated toward improvised weaponry from an early age, while her girls, who are temperamentally more assertive, never showed the slightest interest. Miller resolved that it was better to allow this type of channeling of aggression, while keeping tabs on how it manifested itself in her son's games.
Her view is supported by a recent flurry of studies looking at boys and their development. Michael Thompson, a psychologist and coauthor of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," writes that parents often overreact when confronted with toy guns and other games: "Play is play. Violence is violence." The key is making sure that kids distinguish between the two in their play.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, co-author of the book "Who's Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys," sees it differently. These toys are not the product of natural childhood fantasies, she says, but "really manifest the ideas of adults -- of marketing people" who push toys that reflect an adult imagination more than a child's. Yet Carlsson-Paige, who has long studied the effect of violence in the media on the social development of children, says it is true that guns and war games are a way of helping some children process the plethora of violent images on television, in videos, in the news. When I asked her about my neighborhood toy gun issues, she told me: "If parents 'ban' gun play, they run the risk of cutting off a valuable vehicle children need for processing the violence [because] kids use their play to make meaning of what they have experienced in life, and in this case, of the violence they have seen."
For his part, the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of "The Good Enough Parent," said that there is clearly a gender difference in the toys parents give boys and girls to play with, but he thought that rather than taking guns away from boys, parents should pass them out to girls, who would be served "equally well to be able to discharge their anger through symbolic play, as with toy guns."
While the zero-tolerance debate about guns and other such toys predated the 1990s, it was greatly accelerated after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings as educators rushed to develop formal policies against weapons (fake or real) in schools. This made obvious sense to most parents -- these toys do lend themselves to disruptive games and it can be difficult from a distance to distinguish between real and toy weapons. However, nervous school officials soon began to apply these policies as strict liability offenses where even the most minor violation is treated as a cause for arrest, expulsion or special schooling.
· In New Jersey, an 8-year-old boy used an L-shaped piece of paper in a game of cops and robbers during recess. School officials called the police, saying the child had threatened "to kill other students" by saying "pow pow" on the playground. He was held for five hours and forced to make two court appearances before charges were dropped. Two 8-year-old boys were charged with making "terrorist threats" after they were found pointing paper guns at classmates. Charges were later dropped.
· In Texas, a 13-year-old girl was suspended and transferred to a school for problem kids after she brought a butter knife to school with her lunch. Her parents had packed the dull knife so that she could cut her apple to make it easier to eat because she wore braces.
· In Arkansas, an 8-year-old boy was punished for pointing a cooked chicken strip at another student and saying "pow, pow, pow."
· In Georgia, a 5-year-old student was suspended after he brought a plastic gun the size of a quarter to his kindergarten class.
Even drawing a picture is too close for comfort under these zero-tolerance policies. In Florida, two 10-year-olds were arrested after drawing stick figures considered to be threatening, and in Nevada, teachers tried unsuccessfully to expel a boy for drawing a cartoon of the death of his teacher.
While many people are complaining about such harsh actions and lawmakers are beginning to call for more moderate policies, some parents want zero-tolerance policies extended to playgrounds, parties and other venues. That has put many of us who have a more expansive view of what is acceptable childhood play in the unenviable position of either conforming to a policy that we believe to be excessive or continually triggering confrontations with zero-tolerance parents.
Of course, it is a bit troubling to be seen as a local gun merchant supplying the weaponry of gratuitous violence to our playgrounds. However, we do not believe that play guns and swords are ruining our children. Frankly, after three boys, my wife and I have resolved the nature/nurture debate in our house in favor of nature.
Yet on the playground there seems to be a palpable fear among zero-tolerance parents that boys harbor some deep and dark violent gene that, if awakened, is likely to end years later with some sort of Hannibal Lecter situation. Of course, there are at least 100 million men in this country who probably played with toy guns or swords as children and did not grow up to become serial killers.
As one of five kids (with two older brothers), I grew up in a liberal, no-guns household in Chicago in the 1960s. My mother considered it her duty to smash any squirt gun we brought into the house. In looking back, though, I'm sure that her gun-free policy made us all the more obsessed with the toys. My kids, on the other hand, show no such fixation. They rarely play gun games (sword fights are more common) and are more inclined to hunt for valuable rocks on the playground or convert our best linens into makeshift yurts in the living room.
Still, when their best friend recently invited them to his Army-themed birthday party, it didn't bother us a bit (though some parents did refuse to let their children attend). In fact, I was struck by how, more than combat fighting, the boys tended to act out scenes involving rescuing comrades or defending the wounded. What I saw was not boys experimenting with carnage and slaughter, but modeling notions of courage and sacrifice. They were trying to experience the emotions at the extremes of human conduct: facing and overcoming fear to remain faithful to their fellow soldiers.
Or, as child psychologist Penny Holland put it in her book, "We Don't Play with Guns Here," their make-believe games were "part of . . . making sense of the world [imitating] timeless themes of the struggle between good and evil." This explanation is probably all the more important in a world filled with violent images of war on television and in the news.
Being a weapons-tolerant parent doesn't mean I'm thrilled by these games. I would prefer that my sons played nation-builder or rocket scientist. However, before they get to such fantasies, they seem to have to work out more basic emotions in more basic ways. So for a few more years at least, the celery will remain in the fridge and the swords on the playground.