Thursday, August 21, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Violent Play in a Violent World: Thoughts on Raising a Boy Child Who Plays with Guns

posted by Hayley Wood

My father and I are sitting on his couch, watching the Bowling for Columbine on a large screen TV in his home in rural Michigan, about an hour away from Michael Moore's hometown of Flint. My father and I don't know each other very well yet--we met for the first time earlier that year. As we watch the segment of the film describing the differences between handgun ownership in the US and Canada, my father pauses the movie, reaches into the drawer of the side table, and pulls out a pistol that is, he informs me, loaded. A couple years later, right after my son Otis is born, we talk on the phone while I'm still in the hospital. I have just told him the news that the baby is a boy. "I'll give him one of my rifles," is the first thing he says.

Men are more frequently the perpetrators of violent crime than women; the US Bureau of Justice Statistics states that "males were almost 10 times more likely than females to commit murder in 2005." It is also a commonly recognized truism that for a developed country, the US has a disproportionately high rate of gun violence.

I offer the personal anecdote about my father's guns and the basic gender-based fact about gun violence in America as a backdrop to my real topic: young boys and violent play and my own struggle as a parent figuring out what is acceptable to me, in this country, at this time.

My views of the nature/nurture question, like most parents I know, have evolved to favor the "nature" side of the equation, particularly in regards to behavior and gender, which is not to suggest that I discount the effects of environment and social conditioning. Instead of the quiet, bookish little person that I imagined I'd produce, my son is a big, loud, active three-year-old who gives way to regular shrieking rages: all, I'm lucky to say, within the spectrum of normal behavior. While neither of his parents is unfamiliar with rage, I'm pretty sure that the ferocity of his expressions of frustration and anger were not learned behavior. And while his love of Star Wars characters, light saber battles, "fighting bad-guys," and fantasy play involving guns and killing are not divorced from his environment, I feel certain that his predilections toward this sort of pretending are hard-wired. Experts in the field agree that boys have pronounced tendencies toward violent play, and that these outlets should not be stifled as long as they don't morph into actually harming others.

Otis plays with guns, and we call them guns. He pretends to kill adversaries, and I don't suggest that he say "temporarily set back." He's interested in the concept of death itself, and I answer all his questions about it to the best of my ability. I engage with him in pretend sword play and wrestling--activities that bring him great pleasure. He has water pistol fights with his father and friends. At home he watches DVDs and movies that have been pre-approved by us and don't include violence, but I'm not really sure what he gets to watch at his babysitter's house, where there are older boys from whom he's learned a lot, going from being the youngest boy in the all-boy pecking order to one of the older children in his babysitter's care, a real companion and playmate for her sons. He's seen Power Rangers and shoot-'em up video game footage, neither of which delight me. But his father and I have decided that we're not going to protect him from all television (in contrast with David Tebaldi's parenting rule #5). We do protect him from the news. Otis does not watch or listen to the news, and I can't think of anything more horrifying to subject him to.

It's not his evident comfort with the idea of shooting and dying and the pretend violence of his playing that bothers me so much as the "bad guys" talk: the paradigm of good and evil that I see promoted everywhere. And this paradigm, in the reading on the topic I've undertaken, is utterly conflated with violent play and unquestionably placed in the category of what boys do. It's at this junction that I find myself wondering if it's time for me to edit the script and suggest some alternatives. I get how killing bad guys could represent the evolution of the primal urge to vanquish competitors for vital resources. But I'm not sure how to redirect the good/bad talk, or if I should even bother at all.

Just the other day when we were taking a walk, Otis said, "I'm a Power Ranger, and I'm using guns and bombs to kill bad guys." I couldn't help myself. I said, "I don't think anyone who uses guns and bombs is a good guy." It was his use of "bombs" that triggered my response, paired with the implicit idea that some people, good people, have the right to use them against other people, bad people. Because that's the world we're living in.

Which brings me back to the broader public policy issue of actual, fatal gun violence and systematic measures by the state of Massachusetts to address the problem, none of which has any connection to eradicating what I believe is the true cause of US gun violence: poverty and the social injustice caused by gross income disparity. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework aims to provide guidance for PreK-12 education about violence prevention, and the MA Department of Health and Human Services has a Youth Violence Prevention Program. Closer to incidents of violence themselves but not exactly closer to the social root of the issue, is the well regarded Boston Gun Project's Operation Ceasefire, "a problem-oriented policing initiative expressly aimed at taking on a serious, large-scale crime problem: homicide victimization among youths in Boston," which is credited with the significant decrease in Boston gang-youth gun violence in 1996. In the project's report, prepared for the US Department of Justice, from whom it had received a grant to carry out the crime-reducing strategy, poverty, the economy, and employment are mentioned only in passing. I can't claim to have read every word of it, but I doubt very much that the MA curriculum frameworks mention any link between violence and income disparity.

As a middle class person in a (mostly) affluent community, I feel reasonably confident that my son will not be subject to the real life influences that truly do make violent behavior inevitable. I doubt that he will be a perpetrator of violent crime, and I'm pretty sure that the statistics for his social demographic support that confidence. I feel far less assured that he will learn to question the paradigm of good and evil and his nation's use of violence to achieve world dominance. And I am far from certain about when I will begin to assert my own beliefs and morality with him in regards to real violence and its causes. But in addition to tolerating the pretend violence that permeates his imagination, I can help create a safe and loving household, teach peace, and emphasize models of cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution.

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