Monday, March 07, 2011

Of guns and little boys

Moms of boys will tell you that no matter how much you shield the young lad, guns always become an issue. It's almost as if gun play is written into their DNA as the self-defense and rage channeling mechanism of choice.

We don't watch a lot of television here, so he's not getting it from there. The only channel they are allowed to watch is PBS. Actually, it's the only channel they can watch; we don't have cable. When he first wielded his finger as a gun, the only group play he was involved in was our church's Parents Morning Out program. It's hard to imagine that he learned it there, but it takes only one kid and one isolated instance to activate this urge, it seems.

Or no context or incident at all, as my mother found. My two brothers used to construct guns out of Construx and wooden blocks. (My sister and I used to make furniture for our baby dolls from these toys.) And you'd be hard pressed to find a more anti-gun, anti-television crusader than my own mother. The day we all took the photo at the right was the first time my brothers ever had their hands on a "real gun." My dad says he thought they were going to wet their pants.

Our conversation about how and when and why we use guns has evolved over the years. And, yes, it's been years since he started talking about or pretending with guns.

When it began, we told him that guns are only for shooting animals that you want to eat. We didn't want to introduce the notion of shooting at people or animals in self-defense. Then he told us one day that he wanted to eat our dog. We clarified. We don't shoot our friends and Bob is our friend, we told him.

When he "shot" at his sister and Jim and I, we were very clear with him that using a gun is not how to handle anger. We realized that the issue at hand wasn't about guns. It was an opportunity to teach him how best to manage his feelings.

When he has strong feelings about a movie he is watching, he often stands on his chair and yells at and "shoots" his hands at the screen. (Don't worry, he's not watching Terminator or anything like that. He gets riled up watching Peter Pan and 101 Dalmations.) This is his way of dealing with his emotions and we feel this is healthy and normal, if not loud, annoying and somewhat amusing.

A month or so ago, we had a play date with a friend whose son chased and pretended to shoot at Danny. Danny was terrified and I wound up holding a gangly 4-year-old who refused to get down for about five minutes. The little boy's mother was apologetic, but I was happy to see his reaction. It gave me the opportunity to explain that guns are scary when pointed at people. My previous attempts at explaining this to him had fallen on deaf ears. He hasn't pointed a "gun" at anyone since.

Lately, I've been explaining to him that he can learn to use a gun when he is older. This wasn't completely unprompted. He's been asking about it. It comes up at the weirdest times, too.

"You'll be six when Fiona is four," I explained to Danny one day.

"Then I can have a gun?" he asks.

Sure, just in time for kindergarten, kid.

Which brings me one of the reasons we don't want to put our children in school: The black-and-white, zero tolerance attitude about guns, real or imaginary, drawn or spoken about, that exists in today's school environment. This nonsense leads administrators to suspend or expel children for drawing guns, possessing a one-inch GI Joe machine gun replica or even talking or joking about guns. These somewhat isolated incidents become fodder for local newspapers and free-range parenting discussions. The prospect of  having our child's permanent record sullied over an innocent remark or drawing, though, is the much bigger deal here for us than the so-called infraction.

The overreaction to guns recently squelched the aspirations of a handful of local students engaging in the sport of marksmanship. These high school students were poised to compete in a statewide youth marksmanship competition. These kids had learned a valuable skill, which one state agency was trying to promote to replenish the dwindling ranks of hunters in the state. A local school administrator put the brakes on their participation citing a ban on deadly weapons on campuses that also prohibits students from carrying guns on school trips. The decision to bar the team from competition wrongly, in my opinion, extended the ban to students participating in an off-campus event sponsored by a state agency, not by any school system. The school board later amended the policy to allow participation in the event, but not in time for the students who trained and expected to compete that particular year.

This black and white thinking about violence in general is also reflected in a school policy that I've always found to be unfair and, frankly, quite lazy and cowardly on the part of administrators. Most schools don't recognize the difference between the instigator and the victim when a fight breaks out on campus. A student who is beaten up by another and tries to fight back and protect himself is often punished the same as the one who throws the first punch. No where else can you be punished for being a victim. Even here, I realize there are mitigating factors such as whether the victim used sufficient force to get away or if the force was overly retaliatory. But in my day (I sound like an old woman here, I know) such factors were not taken into account.

We don't want to send our children into an environment that teaches absolutes such as all gun use is bad or everyone who is involved in a fight is responsible. We don't want our children to be subject to the arbitrary rulings of administrators with an agenda. That teaches children right from wrong only in the context of an artificial environment--school. In real life, what's right in one situation would be wrong in another. For instance, shooting a trespasser who is not threatening you is wrong; shooting the same trespasser who has threatened you with a gun, other weapon or sufficient physical force to make you fear for your own safety is justifiable. We're teaching our children to think for themselves and apply and adjust that thinking to a variety of situations.

For us, zero tolerance about guns and even violence is a grave mistake. Our job as parents is to teach the subtle nuances of living life. We don't want to teach him to fear guns or be cut off from his survival instincts. If he's hungry in the wilderness or our society one day devolves back to a subsistence economy, we want our kids to know how to provide for and protect themselves and their families. The reality is that killing animals for food or defending yourself with guns or other weaponry is a fact of life that we are cut off from in modern society. Our base instincts for self-preservation, however, still exist and we want to be sure that our children can tap into that when necessary. (Of course, we don't believe that you need an automatic or even a semi-automatic weapon to kill a deer or a duck or stop a human predator.)

We want our kids to know that guns are used as tools: tools for self-defense, tools for policemen and tools to provide food. As with all tools, you have to know how and when to use them them safely and responsibly.

And I think that message is getting through to him. This weekend, after he received a mini marshmallow gun, he cautiously wielded it and told me with some gravity, "You have to know how to use this, mom."

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