Family Life column for Reuters on boys, guns and the “bang bang gene.”
It’s a scene repeated again and again at the breakfast table of the peace-loving family. You know the sort. They’re the family with the canvas farmers’ market shopping bag, the clutter of vitamin bottles on the counter and the strict rules prohibiting the viewing of violent cartoons and the use of toy guns. No squirt guns, no ray guns, no popguns.
Then one morning, peace-loving mama serves up a slice of wholegrain toast to her peace-loving son only to discover that he’s chewed his bread into the shape of a pistol.
P-sshhew P-sshew, comes the sound effect, followed by the inevitable punch line: “You’re dead.”
You can run, peaceful parent, but you can’t hide from the toast gun.
It’s not always toast, of course. Other parents report that their kids have fashioned firearms out of sticks, stuffed animals and showerheads. One parent on the website Offsprung reports that as a boy, he made a gun out of a Jesus figurine swiped from the Christmas nativity scene.
The props change, but one thing is almost always the same: boys pull the trigger.
Many parents, particularly moms, greet such scenes with shock, or at least anxiety. Particularly in a time of wars overseas and violence on the streets, questions linger: how do such violent urges spring from innocent children, especially those whose media exposure is limited to public television shows featuring nubby-textured puppets resolving conflicts with understanding and hugs? Does prohibiting gunplay actually encourage it? Are boys who play with guns destined to grow up to be soldiers, hunters or hit men?
In short, what is it with boys and guns?
The subject has been a hot topic among parents and educators for at least 30 years. Child development experts tell us that yes, boys are more likely to play with guns than girls but no, there’s no proven link between gunplay and aggressive behavior. Even so, they report that children under 9 have a harder time understanding the difference between play and real guns; given that, most experts agree that it’s best to keep toy guns away from kids.
Many educators, even those far outside peace-loving progressive circles, prohibit toy weapons at school.
I myself was raised with a strict gun control policy by a fiercely pacifist mom. Our living room was decorated with that ubiquitous poster of the crayon sunflower and the slogan, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Still, I loved to play shoot-‘em-up. Then one day I was caught running around the front yard gunning down armies of invisible Storm Troopers with a sprinkler attachment. “What, this?” I sputtered. “Oh mom, this is a peace gun. I’m shooting peace rays.”
How quaint that story sounds now. A quick walk down the aisle of the local toy emporium proves how far removed peace-loving families are from the mainstream today. The “boys section” overflows with laser blasters, paintball sets and secret agent pistols. Exquisitely molded action figures sport ammo belts and bazookas. Super Soakers promise to pack as much liquid firepower as ICBMs.
Whatever experts say about kids and guns, parents clearly aren’t listening.
How could they? Their protests are drowned out by the constant din of pretend gunfire. Whether it’s an unconscious manifestation of anatomy, a function of male hormones or simply a handy way for boys to exert power, there’s clearly something deep-seated, even natural, about the bond between boy and gun.
Of course that doesn’t mean we should arm our kids. As far as I’m concerned, parents who dress their 8-year-olds in camouflage and give them realistic toy Uzis should be strapped down and forced to listen to Yoko Ono records until the next Age of Aquarius. At the same time, outright bans on gunplay are foolish at best and may even backfire, producing an even more intense attachment to the forbidden pleasure of shooting stuff.
I myself managed to grow up a mostly peaceful fellow, even if I still get a weirdly intense thrill from the occasional game of laser tag or “Medal of Honor.” All of which puts in me an uncomfortable position with my own two young sons, who unsurprisingly, love to run around the house blasting each other with make-believe weaponry. I’ve make it a point to sit them down and explain how real-life guns can do irrevocable real-life harm. When the combat starts, I wish they’d go work on a jigsaw puzzle or build a sofa fort.
But I get it. I too was born with the bang-bang gene.
So when they shoot me with the toast gun, I know the drill: save the explanations, grab the wound and fall to the ground.