Thursday, July 26, 2012 | return to: columns, parenting for the perplexed


Parenting for the Perplexed: Oy vey! What to do? My son wants a gun

by rachel biale

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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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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.

rachel bialeOn 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.


Posted by sac
07/26/2012  at  11:53 PM
Good advice regarding little ones & toy guns

I have never felt compelled to leave a comment before at jweekly until I read this article. I wondered what you were going to recommend to this family and realized that your ideas could reverberate to a lot of other families (Jewish or not….) I was holding my breath almost to the end of your article.  I really appreciated your sharing a personal story and your “in today’s world” middle ground approach that families can take when it comes to gun toys.

I grew up in a very “all American” household where my dad kept a gun “for protection,” had rifles and bows and arrows for hunting, displayed his hunting trophies (and heads) on the walls, and had the TV on from dawn to dusk.  I hated it as a child, and loathed it in my teens.  I guess it should be noted my dad is not Jewish.  Now having a boy who is 6, and on my son’s daddy’s side, his grandpa also being very pro-gun & pro-military, I knew I had to be very “out” with my dislike of guns (and TV.)  I made a conscious decision to not get any TV reception in our home before my son was born, to stay away from “Toys R Us” type toys, and to not allow toy guns or ANY video games.  This was met early on with hostility by my husband (also not Jewish!) 

When my son was about age 4 (still not yet gun obsessed, because he had not yet started kindergarten in a public school and thus surrounded by the children of families who watch TV and allow for all other media) I bought him non-grotesque sword type toys and shields.  I would say not having TV, zero newspapers & other forms of marketing at child’s reach, not being on the internet a lot around my child, and being very careful about who he had playdates with, staved off his desire for guns until he started kindergarten.  When he did become very gun and “I’ll shoot you” obsessed, and it was very upsetting.  It did calm down when I modified his school situation, and actually later changed schools!  My son turns 6 in about a week.  This summer, I bought very day-glo “happy colored” water pistols which don’t resemble AK47s or handguns.  I find the swords and non-AK47 looking water pistols are “just enough” for boys to allow for the aggressive outlet without caving to all of the violent gun-type toys out there.  It lets the boys know “they can be boys” but establishes the understanding that “our family does not think guns are cool or nice.” 

And YES, even if all of that was not out there to buy, boys will make anything into a gun.  All of my son’s musical instruments have become guns.  His banana.  His toothbrush.  I remember being so worried about this aspect of raising boys when he was about 2, talking with a teacher who has extensive child development experience and works as a head pre-school teacher.  She reminded me that it is also simply inherent in boys due to their biology to naturally “hold” an item like a gun or in a shooting position because this is one of the first gestures boys learn as soon as they are learning to urinate on their own.  Our boys are, please excuse the pun, “learning to shoot.”  It is something that just comes with the nature of being a boy.  So to totally deny this might not be the best way to go, but offering options that don’t go straight for the scary guns and still give them the chance to be boys and play aggressively, will give them the OK to do what comes naturally without encouraging the violence so inherent in today’s toys that are marketed to boys.

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