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Gunplay: the view from here

My house has been a war zone for over a month. Around 6am the blasting starts – I’m often still in bed and cover my head with a pillow. The blasting doesn’t cease until dark, when I fall into bed exhausted, with nerves shattered. When it first began I often found myself staring down the barrel of a gun – semi-automatic; riffle; pistol. Now there is just a distant rumble of gunfire and explosives. Sometimes I look down and find a grenade by my foot and I hope for the best as I pick it up and toss it far away.

It took me a few weeks to get used to it. Now that I’m able to look at what is happening more objectively, instead of getting so triggered by it (no pun intended), I’m going to attempt to put into words how I am thinking and feeling about it.

My two sons have never really engaged in much fantasy or pretend play, alone or with each other. So it should delight me that they have found some common ground and spend long periods of time playing together and creating fantasy scenarios. The only problem is that their shared fantasy is gunplay. And gunplay makes me really nervous.

Yet, for the past month gunplay has been an all-consuming fervor. From dawn to dusk they are manufacturing guns, creating gunplay scenarios, and acting them out. Mostly they are on the same team, but sometimes they are play fighting each other. They are able to create all kinds of guns from their building blocks. They use string to create gun slings. They create bunkers out of sleeping bags.

The only real conflict they have is when B (the older brother) starts sneaking more and more blocks so he can build more guns and R (the younger brother) is left with an obviously smaller supply of guns, causing tears and hitting to ensue. Then I have to intervene and suggest that an equal number of blocks would solve the problem. B agrees and begins counting out equal numbers of blocks. R is once again satisfied and the gunplay goes on.

It all started when they were watching Star Wars Clone Wars – a cartoon on Netflix. I hadn’t been monitoring what they were watching as closely as usual (ironically, my social justice work has been really busy lately). Once I realized what was happening and I was connecting the watching of that show with more violent fantasy play I limited the show to once a week. But it was too late – they had already found their obsession. The play has continued for weeks – even though they aren’t watching the show. We also recently watched a kids cartoon about the history of the US and they were inspired by the American Revolution and began playing Red Coats and Tea Party and Green Mountain Boys.

This isn’t the first time there has been gunplay in our house. We have already established boundaries:

  1. No weapons in the kitchen

  2. You can’t point a gun at someone unless they have agreed they want to play the game. If you do, your gun will be off limits for the rest of the day.

  3. When mom and dad ask you to keep the play out of the living room, you must comply.

  4. No real toy guns – except for a few teensy tiny Lego guns. If the kids want to play guns they have to use their creativity. Although my husband keeps mentioning Nerf guns.

I’ve talked with lots of parents about this issue and I find there are so many variations of what parents are ok with. In some households it’s a free for all – toy guns, gunplay, media choices are open, within reason. In some houses there are no guns, no gunplay – maybe some swords and bows & arrows and you have to be on the same team as your siblings. And there is everything in between.

In my house, growing up, I had two younger brothers who supposedly made guns out of anything they could find – we didn’t have toy guns in the house. I know that I get a lot of my ideas about gunplay from my parents. But as the older sister I don’t remember the gunplay – I certainly wasn’t involved in it. I couldn’t relate to it then. I can’t relate to it now.

Gunplay triggers me. It frazzles me. I try to remove myself from the scene. Once (or twice!) I yelled at the kids. “Don’t point that gun in my face. Guns kill people. There are people dying right now from guns. I’m not ready to die. And I don’t want to pretend.” Did it help? I felt like crap afterwards. Yet, I haven’t had any issues with them pointing guns at me since that day.

What has felt really useful is to learn about how kids engage with violent fantasy play. I’ve been reading “Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-believe Violence” by Gerard Jones, a creator of Pokémon. Read this excellent review of his book. He talks about violent fantasy play as a way for kids to process, deal with, and heal from the violence that is around them in society. He says that violent fantasy play does not make kids violent. Kids are much more likely to become violent if they have experienced or witnessed real or actual violence. Media and play help kids to process what’s around them. And if we are squashing that play, then we are squashing whatever it is that kids need to process. Gerard Jones’s premise resonates with what I am experiencing.

A dear friend of mine who has worked with preschoolers and kids for years and who has done a lot of research on childhood development echoes what Gerard Jones writes about. She says it is vital to stay out of the way of kids play. There are times when I try to sculpt and teach and guide from my adult brain – and what she says is that I am getting in the way of the learning they are naturally trying to do. Later on, when the kids are back in their real life bodies and not in their fantasy play, we can talk. I can ask questions, and we might connect conversations about guns or violence to the play they were doing, or we might not

I will keep learning, discussing with others, and reading more perspectives on kids using violent play. Send me good resources that have been helpful in your parenting.

I’m also trying to figure out my personal philosophy about guns and violence. I’m an admirer of the nonviolent movement that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr popularized in the 50s and 60s and was successful in bringing about huge gains in civil rights. I am also a fan of Malcolm X, the Zapatistas, the Cuban Revolution, Nelson Mandela, and the Black Panthers, and others who have used armed struggle and self-defense in the face of oppression. To realize social and economic justice armed struggle and nonviolent struggle go hand in hand. When the oppressors hold guns it is imperative for the people to fight for their rights through nonviolent mass movement building, and at the same time for armed struggle to put the pressure on those in power to listen to the asks of the mass movement.

This message of armed struggle has become warped in the last year. There are those on the right who are demanding increased gun rights to stand up to what they perceive as an oppressive government. From what I can tell that demand has racist underpinnings – fear of immigrants, fear of criminals – aka People of Color, fear of Muslims – aka terrorists. When weapons are combined with racist fears and government power they become extremely dangerous and destructive – as we have seen over and over again throughout history.

There is an increased energy of hatred and violence, of valuing certain lives (white, male, Christian, citizen, English speaking, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied) over others. This energy is infecting our nation, our households, our media, and our own selves. My kids are not immune to picking up on this vibration and I believe it is very possible that their gunplay is in response to this energy. I can see they feel powerful when they have guns. That power must feel good in the face of the vibration of uncertainty and chaos and hate that is swirling around us.

This is not just about the current political climate. I am also reminded that while I was brought up in a house that espoused nonviolent principles, the reality is that guns have been a reality for centuries, and warfare goes back millenniums. For my young boys, warrior is coded into their DNA, and two generations of not needing to know how to use guns is not going to erase their natural draw towards guns. Killing other life forms has been necessary in procuring food sources for millennium too. My kids are enacting a very real need to hunt, fight, and kill that comes from deep in their bones.

It must be in my bones too. There have been a few times where I have engaged with them in sword play. It has felt good. I have felt strong, powerful and capable. My kids even tell me that I’m pretty good at it. I see their faces light up. Last week after a half hour sword fighting session my youngest covered me with kisses. It’s amazing how resistant I am to engaging with them in play-fighting, especially after seeing how happy it makes them.

At the same time I am teaching my kids how to engage with all people around them with respect and dignity and justice. We are talking about what those words mean, and using examples that relate to their daily life. (It is unjust when kids pick on your classmate). I tell my kids that they are powerful to make change. That in their light and brilliance they can stand up for justice using their ideas and their words and their love. (You can stand up for that classmate by inviting them to play and/or by asking the other kids to stop picking on them.) I am teaching them nonviolent conflict management skills (Saying what they need, and listening to the other person’s request). Together we are praying for peace and for justice in our family, our community, our country and our world.

At their conferences last week both of their teachers say that they are well-liked, able to problem solve with their classmates, and that violence doesn’t often show up in the way they relate to other kids. Phew! I was worried there for a while.

I wonder when the 6am bomb blasts are going to stop. I’m ready for a ceasefire.

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