Three years ago, when my son turned 1, he received a toy gun from his beloved Chinese Ayi. It was an AK3388: camouflage with several buttons that each emitted a different, realistic pat-pat-pat. This was March 2013, and we were living in Shanghai. Three months earlier we had touched down at JFK airport to spend Christmas with family. On the dark ride home we were asked if we had heard about the incident in the little town next to ours. “A school shooting,” the driver said. “Somewhere called Sandy Hook?”

As an American living abroad, news from home can sometimes elicit the same emotional charge you get when your child gets hurt. It’s not really happening to you, yet it is. That Christmas, we had come home to Bethel, just a few miles down the road from Sandy Hook. It wasn’t really happening to us, yet it was.

Watching my two little boys open their gifts in the idyllic glow of Christmas lights, warm, safe and full of life, the answer seemed simple: get rid of all the guns. Pan out further of course, and there was chaos: shredded wrapping paper, kids fighting over toys, Santa’s dirty wine glass. The reality is that the answers to complex problems are never simple. The best I could do was to ensure my kids remained gun-less, gun-shy, and anti gun(g)-ho.

Our sweet Ayi’s gift would not deter my plan. Hidden on the top shelf of the hall closet, the AK3388 silently sat. It did not make the move with us to Singapore.

Living abroad also causes you to re-examine your cultural eccentricities. While guns are not exclusively American, the obsession with civilian “gun rights” is uniquely American. As headline after headline is written about mass shootings, I’ve felt obligated to speak on behalf of my country. “Yes, I’ve shot a gun. No, I didn’t grow up with guns. Yes, I think there should be reasonable limits. No, I don’t think all Americans are unreasonable.” The headlines continue. Different location, same tragic ending.

“It’s a phase,” a Danish friend assured when I expressed concern that my son had recently developed the ability to turn anything into a gun. For a long time, I tried not to call the stick he was “shooting” a gun. I insisted he say “pew” instead of “bang” (thinking the former at least sounded less violent). I cringed every time he’d smile and declare, “you’re dead!” He used his water shooter as gun. He clicked and locked his Duplo blocks into a gun. When he could find no toy, he’d hold out his index fingers and point his thumbs at the sky. Pew pew.

“My son does it too. It’s boys. I wouldn’t put too much thought into it,” an Indian mother said, when I expressed my concerns. The more mothers (Japanese, British, Australian) I spoke to, the more my concerns waxed and waned — in equal measure. Everyone assured me my child is perfectly normal. “It’s good for them,” a Chinese mother said. “They play with them now and they learn they are only for play.” But seeing my 4-year-old pretend to shoot his brother dead while laughing is unsettling. Perhaps it’s because I’m American.

In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, “Keeping Kids From Toy Guns: How One Mother Changed Her Mind,” author Christine Gross-Loh explains the implications of vilifying toy guns. After spending time in Japan, and learning the benefits of allowing young children to pursue their interests, her views on weapon play softened. “[Weapon play] can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings,” she wrote.

Just as abstinence education does not prevent teen pregnancies, will banning toy guns really have much of an impact on my kids? Will allowing them to play with toy guns with reckless abandon promote a lifelong love of violence and weaponry, or am I overreacting?

I’m not alone. In an article for The Guardian, “I Banned My Son From Having Toy Guns,” Matt Gaw explains parents’ uneasiness with weapon play. Especially in highly militarized societies, he notes, we place a great deal of emphasis on the meaning of play. However, he notes, “evidence that playing with guns or Action Man can lead to a career of violence or the carrying out of appalling acts is not borne out.”

My boys aren’t wild. They are kind and gentle and (mostly) well-behaved. I don’t think they’ll grow up to lead a life of violence or carry out an appalling act. But what parent does?

“It’s your culture. So crazy about car seats but kids take guns to school,” the Chinese mother said. She was right, though I want to both condemn and defend my culture. “But I’m different. It’s more complicated. I understand sensible car seat use and believe in gun control.” Instead, I watched my mild-mannered child shoot hers with a Nerf gun. Pew pew.

Should I ban the toy guns to prove we’re not all gun-crazed freedom fighters?

My kids love having lightsaber battles with friends. They cut off their friends’ limbs with delight. They bat words around like balloons: gun, shoot, kill, dead. It’s all just play to them. As Gross-Loh writes, “Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play.” None of the other mothers in my international school circle seem too concerned. But as an American, it feels different.

Kids are exposed to millions of new and confusing messages regularly. The rate at which they sift through the noise, learn and grow is miraculous. For as much as we think we can influence how the messages are given and received, there is so much out of our control. There’s no escaping Star Wars, with its timeless good versus evil story arc. But it is also tremendously violent. The research on violence in the media, however, is mixed. Maybe kids aren’t desensitized to violence; maybe they’re just more advanced at deciphering nuances of play than we give them credit for.

Their world is already framed in terms of good and bad. They know good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is not. They know the good guys protect and the bad guys destroy. They are clear on who the good guys are (Superman, Batman, Ironman, Luke Skywalker) and who the bad guys are (The Joker, The Riddler, Darth Vader). But is it enough?

My kids know the Force isn’t real, and neither are superpowers. They make Lego cars with no wings and insist they can fly. They pretend well. Someday I will teach them that guns can protect and destroy, depending on who is holding them. Someday they will learn what happened in the little town next to ours. Someday, the violent words they use will hold more weight.

For now, though, I will let them play.

Kathleen Siddell recently returned to the U.S. after spending four years in Asia with her husband and two boys. You can read more of her reading on her blog or find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.

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