Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
We thought we’d skirt the issue with our pro-peace, “use your words” and gender-neutral parenting, but alas, our 4-year-old boy wants a gun. We cringe at the thought, but can also see that he has never wanted anything else with this kind of intensity. Help! Puzzled in Piedmont
Dear Puzzled: Let’s start with assuring you that you have done nothing wrong in raising your boy in the “paths of peace,” and his wish for a gun now does not indicate he will want one when he is grown. This issue is particularly fascinating to me because of its gender and cultural specificity, so bear with me for some broad discussion before we get into what to do.
On gender issues, I advise parents to offer, as I did with my children, a full spectrum of toys and activities without gender-pegging: boys with dolls, girls with hammers, etc. I have never encountered parents flummoxed because their daughter wanted a gun. (Please let me know if your experience is different!) I myself remember vividly how I insisted on playing soccer with the boys and wanted a bow and arrow for Lag B’Omer. My father was a carpenter and physicist; in those days in the kibbutz you could be both. So he made me a beautifully carved bow and explained the laws of physics governing the arrow’s trajectory and speed. I even announced in third grade that my name was now Danny and I was going to be a boy. It lasted till fourth grade, but never in that whole period (nor before or after) did I want a gun.
Which brings me to the second point, culture specificity. Our kibbutz was on the Jordanian border and guns were part of everyday life. This is still the case in Israel today. Soldiers on their way to and from home carry gun, as do other security personnel. But when it came to raising my children here in the United States, without even noticing, I adopted the common American Jewish aversion to guns. (Jews have the lowest gun ownership rate in America.) I, too, felt very uncomfortable with the idea of my son playing with guns.
So, what do I recommend?
I do believe boys love toy guns so much because they offer an important avenue for mastering aggression through play. Pretend combative play — cowboys and Indians, space aliens and humans, cops and robbers and superheroes armed to the teeth — is important for the maturation and “civilizing” of boys. Allowing opportunities for play that channels aggressive fantasies reduces the amount of actual aggression toward other kids.
That said, it’s important to uphold your values and recognize when something is too uncomfortable and disturbing for you. It’s perfectly fine to let your child know there are things you find objectionable and don’t want in your house. For example, some parents feel this way about pet rats. We told our son: “We really, really don’t like guns. They hurt and kill people. We don’t want one in our house, not even a play gun.”
But we did let him get a sword. Why? Mainly, because it didn’t make us cringe in the same way a gun did and let him deal with aggression through play. We explained: “Swords are a bit like old tales from ‘Once upon a time.’ A long, long time ago, people used them to fight. But, nowadays, people don’t use swords to kill.” No doubt there is a bit of rationalizing here, but this offered a middle ground we could live with. Our son, after graduating from swords to the World Wrestling Federation, abandoned these pursuits and grew into a very peaceful, unaggressive person, who does his “fighting” for justice and civil rights in the court of law.
Where’s your comfort zone? Maybe you’ll go with the “sword solution” or maybe you’ll allow water pistols but not realistic-looking guns. Know that if you ban guns altogether, your son will make them with his hand, a bent twig, a discarded door handle. But that’s creativity — let it be.
At an opportune moment, when he is older, I hope you’ll have a serious talk about the scourge of guns.