There was a standoff in our living room this morning. A group of knights attacked a group of pirates right there by the coffee table. There were several casualties, including horses that needed immediate attention while armed policemen waited nearby. There were reports of slain dragons, a princess who fainted, and a child was driving the rescue truck. A police helicopter was hovering over the scene.

It was mayhem.

This type of violence is not uncommon in our living room these days. My son is 4 and a half and he likes to play with soldiers and pirates and policemen. And swords. And guns.

I grew up in Europe where I knew exactly one person who owned a gun. I never actually saw said gun, just heard that one of our neighbors liked to hunt. The  police came to question us before issuing his weapons permit.

In fact, I never saw a gun until I met my father-in-law a few years ago. He lives on a farm in central Pennsylvania, and the cabinet next to his bed is filled with shotguns. He uses them to hunt and to shoot sick animals or unwelcome groundhogs. One time when we were visiting, he left his shotgun casually leaning against a car we wanted to drive. Seeing my husband pick up and move the gun made me queasy and uncomfortable. What if it goes off? Do guns do that, just by accident?

I know that much of my discomfort around guns – the topic and the actual weapon – comes from not knowing much about them. I don’t know how to handle them safely. I don’t know what to do if one is pointed at me. (This I’d rather not find out). Frankly, I don’t understand their purpose beyond killing things.

Recently we took my son to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where on our way to the Egyptian exhibit we wandered through halls of medieval weaponry: gilded guns, swords with magnificent carvings, beautiful armors. I could almost forget that they were weapons used to kill people at one time – almost.

I am not sure how my son found out about guns or weapons. How does any child? We don’t watch violent TV shows or the news when he is around. We don’t own guns, we don’t talk about guns, we don’t read about guns, and we live far, far away from my in-laws and their gun cabinets. It seems like his knowledge of weaponry came from the same little-boy-gene that carries the talent for imitating car engine sounds. I know that he knew about weapons before I ever bought him a knight with a sword or a cowboy that came with a tiny gun in a holster. Looking back now I wonder if I should have removed the gun and the sword. But that feels… fake. Cowboys have guns. Policemen have guns. Knights slay dragons with swords. If I had bought him a toy kitchen set, would I remove the burners because the real ones can burn him?

I decided early on that I wouldn’t buy any toy guns that fit my son’s hands. Ends up that I don’t have to, because he creates his own. Anything in our house can be turned into a gun: a toy broom tied to a telescope. A couple of Duplo blocks and Lego railroad tracks. His morning toast after a couple of careful bites.

I have to give him credit for creativity.

As a parent, I struggle with finding the balance between “he’s a boy, boys play with cowboys and knights,” and “oh my god, if he plays with these toy guns, will he turn into a violent person?” I know the line may not be that fine, but with regular school shootings in the news, I wonder if the standards for these sorts of things have changed.

So when I play with him and his toy figures we talk about other ways to settle arguments and win battles: kindness, generosity, wit, tenderness, good negotiation skills. But in his mind things are clear: good guys have the guns and they win. Bad guys die. When you are 4, things are simple like that.

I explain to him as best as I can the complexity of conflicts and the finality of death, and hope that all of this will come flooding back to him when it matters. And really, my hope is that it will never matter, because he will never hold a real gun in his hands, nor will one ever be pointed at him. But that might not be reality.

The reality is this: In this country guns are everywhere. I will have to ask fellow parents whether they have guns in their house, and whether they are locked away safely, before I let Sam play there once he is older. I will have to teach him what to do if a friend plays with a gun near him. I will have to teach him what to do if a gunman attacks his school. These are not realities I like, but parenting is rarely about our own comfort around certain topics. I mean, do I feel comfortable knowing that one day he’ll have sex, and drink, and drive a car? No. But I need to teach him how to do all of those things safely.

So I remain vigilant in my quest to let him be a little boy and play as he likes and to remind him that sometimes it’s the unarmed hero who wins the battle. We bake, build towers and castles, feed his baby doll, and color and read and swim and bike. Then we rescue the princess and slay the dragon and capture the treasure.

And at the end of the day, when we line up his toy soldiers and knights and put away their weapons, there is peace in our living room.

Zsofia McMullin lives in Connecticut and blogs at Zsofi Writes.

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