Serious Fun : Real Toys, Real Guns, Real World
My car slowly rolls forward behind the line of cars all carrying their precious cargo of children to school in the morning. My son grumbles that I didn’t pull up close enough but starts to get out anyway. I grab his arm and pull him back for his mandatory kiss good-bye, at which he rolls his eyes but smiles just the same. We leave with love. Always. It might be the last time I see him. I’ve experienced unexpected loss and believe me when I tell you it really is a small comfort knowing the last thing you said to someone was “I love you.” So, I try and say it every time we part.
I stay where I am, watching his awkward tween body struggle with the weight of his backpack. Despite his man-sized pants and perfectly quaffed hair, he is a baby. My baby. I wonder if the door he is entering is unlocked. I wonder who else can walk in. Then I stay, watching him recede into what should be a place of safety, learning and joy, and I silently say a prayer. I pray that he survives another day at school. I pray that while my baby is sitting at his desk he doesn’t get shot and murdered. I pray that the practice they do to avoid this keeps him safe but also doesn’t keep him living in fear day after day. I am sad and outraged.
I also feel guilty, embarrassed, and confused because that twelve-year-old boy, that baby I dropped off at school, loves guns. Not real ones, not yet and it scares the living shit out of me. I understand hunting. I respect the second amendment, to a degree. We live in Vermont where liberalism and the second amendment share a unique friendship. Guns just have no place in my home. When I was twenty-three a readily available revolver met with my mother’s undiagnosed mental illness and resulted in her suicide. So, no thank you. I’ll stay firmly rooted on the side of gun control.
And yet, here I am. When I try to trace where my son’s fascination came from, it all seemed so natural. For kindergarten and grade school he attended an alternative arts-based school. The core curriculum centers on building harmony between children and the natural world. He grew up with storytelling that emphasized archetypes of males fighting for good against the forces of evil. He acted out Saint George and the Dragon over and over again, and we gave him the tools to do it. He had helmets and felt swords, wooden daggers and bows and arrows all beautifully made and carved. If we hadn’t given him those, he would have found them in his imagination with other less literal items. We have an entire basket of sticks he’s collected that look like swords and guns. According to neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain , the fact that boys engage in gun play is all perfectly natural. And I believe them.
When he was six years old and wanted his first Nerf gun, hesitantly we said, yes. It’s an innocent enough toy — bright green, orange and yellow plastic that shoots little foam bullets. Nerf was a brand of my childhood. Foam footballs and Frisbee. But today’s Nerf is not the brand of the past. Now, six years and a multitude of birthdays, Christmas, and gift cards later, he has nothing short of an arsenal, filled with enough plastic lime green automatic weapons and heavy orange machinery to supply a small militia. And he’s not alone; most of his friends have them too. Now, he’s started to outgrow the childish-looking, brightly colored plastic of Nerf and is begging us for an Airsoft gun. He wants a video game console too, and every game he wants is gun related. Guns and more guns.
I’m dismayed, if not mortified, that shooting at things seems so intertwined with his identity. But perhaps that’s because I am so very different. I never wanted a toy gun or a real one. The marketing machines for these toys are working well because the daily pressure from him to acquire these things is troubling and exhausting. I feel like I am trying to hold a dam together with a craft glue gun. I know I have a particular sensitivity, but really, when as parents we are all praying at the school doors that our kids come home safe, how is this normal? This doesn’t feel anything close to normal.
He’s a smart kid, a kind kid, with a very large heart. He is aware and cares about my feelings. He knows I am opposed to guns. He knows a PG version of my story, and on a normal day he can shrug his shoulders, content knowing that he is just playing. But the days after the Parkland School shooting, however, are not normal. When he was in a small private grade school the parents collectively did our best to shield our children from our nation’s other school tragedies. My children were in first and second grade when Sandy Hook happened and while the adults were all in shock and grief, I was grateful that my children went to school blissfully ignorant of what had befallen their same age peers just a few hours drive away. What could potentially have happened to them. So Parkland is the first school tragedy he is really aware of, and he, his friends, his community are all in tears.
As I watch him struggle to make some sense of this senselessness, I am beside myself that this is real. There is no sense to be made of it. The only sense is what we as Americans are willing to tolerate at the expense of our children, and these families and communities devastated by these events over and over again. Social isolation, access to mental health and guns. I am aware I don’t need to make my son feel any feel worse. But when he asks “How could this happen?” the only answer I seem able to give is that all of us adults in America have let our children down again by our complacency over what is acceptable. Despite my best efforts to not connect my heartbroken disgust for this gun violence to my disgust for the plastic weapons stockpiled in my house, I fail. I fail because it is about guns. And its about who has access to them. And yes, it is all connected.
My disgust seeps out of me and unintentionally drops guilt all over my son. Toy guns, real guns, having them, wanting them, and being able to get them no matter how sick, sad, bullied, or ill you are. I want it to stop. All of it. Plastic green ones included. As a wave of gun control rallying cries sweep the nation, part of me hopes this tragedy will shift the emphasis of toy guns in my home, right along with the real ones in the country. But part of me is embarrassed that I have connected my son’s playtime to the horror of such violence. With no resolution in my heart I let it sink in that this is the reality in which I am raising a tween boy.
The Friday after the Parkland shooting, I carpooled him and a few other sixth graders to the mountain where they snowboard after school. On our drive they opened up about how they felt about what had happened. Some had cried, others are helping to plan a rally, others blamed the adults and the community for ignoring mental illness. A few believed our town was safe, and it wouldn’t happen here. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them it wasn’t true. One thing they all agreed on was that they unanimously blamed guns and access to them. There was an awkward silence when I asked the follow-up question, “But you guys like guns, you play with them all the time?” I didn’t mean to dispense blame, I was genuinely curious.
“We don’t have real guns, they are just plastic,” one of the boys said.
“Some of those toy guns look pretty real,” I said, and reminded them of the sad shooting of the twelve year old in Cleveland who was carrying a toy gun. Just last week a fourteen year old in Arizona, carrying the very same Airsoft gun my son wants, was shot by officer thinking he was doing the right thing. It looks as real as any gun I’ve ever seen. In an article published by the Washington Post in 2016 they found that police had killed eighty-six people carrying toy weapons.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” one of the boys spoke up, “We can’t help it that we like to play like that. I don’t think there is anything wrong with me, but I dunno, I hope people know that. I just wish all this bad stuff didn’t happen so we could just have fun and play. ”
My views on guns aside, my heart broke for them. I have a car full of tween boys trying to reconcile their childhood instincts with the reality of the world. I know playing with toy guns doesn’t make them murderers in training. I know that pretend gun play is and always has been a game that boys play. And I know, according to some experts how healthy it is to just be able to play. And I know that even if I was successful at not having toy guns in the house, they would pick up a stick and make a gun out of it anyway. I really want to be okay with all of that. BUT I also know that they are not living in the world I grew up in. They are living in a world where kids can get suspended for pointing a finger like a gun at someone. A world where their real time imaginary play turned into someone else’s real time murder, real time loss, and real time trauma. A world where the gap between the adulthood and real guns, and childhood and play guns, is so small they can be shot for carrying a toy. A world where toy guns don’t just trigger a gun sensitive mom, but parents and community members who all now exist in a world of fear. A teenage boy walking through a public space holding a toy gun symbolizes something terrifying in today’s world. I’m sad. Sad for all of us. How is this perfectly normal? Certainly not normal for me as a parent and certainly not for this car load of boys.
My son, uncomfortable and tired said “Mom, can we stop talking about this. It makes me sad. I promise not to shoot anyone.” And I believe he won’t.
But NO, actually we can’t stop talking about it.