When your parenting mantra is shot to pieces ...
When my three-year-old son discovered toy guns this year he felt the way some people feel when they discover sex or drugs. It became a single-minded passion. He turned his back on dolls and Lego and the other creative games we provided, and I watched with growing apprehension at his interest in weapons. Was he embracing guns like some missing puzzle piece from his life? If so, what was missing exactly? Or was he simply embracing male friendship, and enjoying sharing in the interests of other little boys?
Before long he had crossed sides from the child led astray to the child leading others astray. I could no longer complain to the kindergarten about supervision in the playground - they complained to me. His thoughts became filled with death, villains and the pleasures of violence; I know this because he discusses it with me, cheerfully and incessantly.
One night I was reading a bedtime story to him about animals that live under the sea. Each beautifully drawn illustration depicts a marine parent and their young, but all my son wanted to know is whether the animals could hurt him. Yes to the shark and the sea snake, no to the sea turtle and the humpback whale. He narrowed in on the dangerous animals and gleefully outlined how he would get out a sword and whack, whack, whack them. It was an incongruous moment – there we were, reading a book about marine babies, for goodness sake, and he, not much more than a baby himself, couldn't look at the animals without joyfully fantasising about killing them.
It was also a moment of insight. At three, the world is seemingly full of warnings, but he’s also becoming aware of some of the consequences of such warnings. He’s old enough to understand a little of the finality of life. This year my son saw a pet die and he suddenly realised, with sorrow, that death meant she wasn't ever coming back.
So the way he wanted to sort the marine animals into threatening and harmless, and to contain those that were a risk before he went to sleep, made me see something. He knows the world can be unsafe, but he also realises his knowledge is limited. If you can’t yet even choose your own bedtime it must be nice to imagine being able to defend yourself against a sea of sharks and snakes.
Since that night I have been either giving up or making well-considered peace with him; I never can tell with my parenting. In my head I played with some of the moratoriums I saw other parents use: no assault rifle toys, but ninja swords and pirate muskets could be historically charming enough to be okay. I also considered the rule some parents have made about not allowing toy guns, but turning a blind eye to sticks and pieces of toast that make pew pew noises.
In the end, I've decided I am reluctant to make any kind of 'play' - particularly one that is active, imaginative and self-driven - entirely taboo. These are my new rules. I am allowing some weapon play but won't particularly set out to buy toy guns and swords. I will accept the idea of killing as a game but I will also use this opportunity to talk about problems with and alternatives to violence. I will not stop him and his friends from playing gun games, but I will not let adult versions of the game extinguish his own imagination either. (That means limits around films, TV and computer games until he is older.)
A few years ago I would have been disappointed in these compromises. Now I am fine with thoughtful failure. I like the way parenthood turns you in on yourself and you never quite know how it will turn out; although you can feel lost and stupid, I even quite enjoy the work of figuring it out.
The way you parent ends up saying a lot about you and your view of the world. And this is what my views on toy guns say about me - I want to parent in the world I live in more than I want to shield my children from that world. I am okay with my son learning about guns, because partly, guns are about how we tell stories of heroes and bravery in our world. Other parts of this story are destruction, poverty, exploitation and injustice – and I intend to teach him about all of those elements of war, too.
I trust this will turn out alright, not just because my son is capable of great empathy, responsibility and kindness, but because there’s a part of me that can relate to the thrill he’s discovering with violence.
Besides, hypocrisy is the ultimate parenting lesson. Confiscate his toy guns and put him to bed early, I have a zombie film to watch.