We have toy guns in my house. Lots of them. We also have daggers, swords, shields and helmets.
This wasn’t what I had planned. I grew up in a family dominated by women – my dad wasn’t around, and I had a single mom and many, many aunts. I believed that weapons were BAD. And if we just eliminated them, the world would be a better place. My brothers didn’t have toy guns in my memories (although I could be wrong), but my mother was always anti-toy guns. I was certain that when I had kids, I wouldn’t allow toy guns in my home.
Then I married Marc. Marc liked guns (although we don’t have any real ones in the house). Marc liked boxing and mixed martial arts and the armed services. Marc liked a whole bunch of things that I had never even considered. Which is handy – because part of what’s awesome about him is that he’s so different from me. We’re alike in the important ways (spirituality, commitment to family, we like intellectual discussion and debate, etc), but he’s into all kinds of stuff I’m not, and vice versa.
Marc had two girls from his first marriage, and our first child was a girl. The weaponry discussion didn’t come up. Jessie was not a rough and tumble sort of girl, her favorite activities were coloring and playing with her doll house. Reading. I knew what I was doing, as Jessica’s mom. She was (and is) sort of a mini-me. I understood her because I had been her.
Then we had Sam. And while I am certainly aware that gender roles can be incredibly limiting, and rigid definitions of what a boy likes versus what a girl likes don’t really do anyone any good – I see where they come from. Sam’s just different from Jessie. In a whole bunch of different ways. For example – Jessie took her first steps when she was eleven months, and then sat back down and didn’t walk again until she was a year and a half. Sam was running at thirteen months, and before he learned to walk, he could pull himself up by holding onto the furniture. He’d labor to get his little body upright, turn around and then topple over. And then do it again and and again and again. Marc and I were watching him one night, and I remember telling Marc that he didn’t seem to learn – he just kept falling, and Marc laughed at me and said he was a boy. That’s what they do. Sam would climb up on top of table and jump off, which is why for about a year and a half, I couldn’t keep my chairs at the dining room table.
He was just different. He loved things that were big and bold – the trash truck’s arrival every week was an event, and when we got a new vacuum cleaner, he bonded so closely with it (because Marc had let him “help” him put it together), he gave it a hug and a kiss before going to bed that night. We used to pack picnics in the summer and go sit on the sidewalk to watch the construction vehicles building a house a few streets over.
I’m not sure when the gun thing started. It might have been when he started sitting up with Marc at night while I was reading to Jessie and watching the History Channel on battles and armor. It might have been when he started sitting with Marc and playing the computer game where you build a civilization and have armies and navies and kings and battles. Or it might have been when Marc brought him home a plastic rifle and handed it to him.
I was shocked and horrified – a toy gun? In my house? For my little boy??? Absolutely not. It was bright orange, and the look on his little face, he was in love with it before we got it out of the package. Marc shrugged off my concerns, he had played with them as a kid, and it was no big deal. And I thought of all the ways in which Sam made sense to Marc – all of the ways that he idolized his Daddy and all that he did. Marc was as much his parent as I was. And perhaps he had a better sense of what Sam would like.
Turns out I was right – Marc did know what Sam would like. And seven years later, we’ve got swords and nerf guns and battle armor and army guys galore. Because Sam adores all of that. And my Julianna – the daughter who’s growing up with a big brother – she wields a sword with skill and grace. And is just as happy to chase after Sam clutching a toy pistol as she is to play dress up with her big sister.
I know it’s not always a popular position, but I’m okay with the guns and the weapons and battles. Because I’ve been doing it for a while now, and I have learned that the guns are really more a representation of being able to defend yourself, and stand up against evil. To protect and defend. I know that this gets into dicey stuff – about what being a boy/man is versus being a girl/woman. I know that my children, my older two, line up along very distinct gender roles. They model themselves after their dad and I. And Marc’s really into stuff that’s very stereotypically masculine. He loves the military, loves physical activity. He also really likes to pretend to hunt zombies (with Sam, as opposed to by himself – which would be weird), by sneaking around the house, armed with nerf guns and a sense of drama.
I also feel really strongly that this is a part of who Sam is, and that nurturing, accepting and embracing that is part of my job as his parent. To make him feel as though liking that is wrong, that pretending to be a brave knight fighting a ferocious dragon to rescue the princess is not okay would stifle him in ways that I wouldn’t dream of doing to my daughter. Jessica loves mothering – she loved baby dolls long past the point where other girls had outgrown them, and is happiest when she’s got a real baby in her arms to hold and snuggle. Very stereotypically feminine – and I celebrate that as well.
My job as their parent is to support and encourage them to be themselves. Present the options, and not push one way or another. Would I have bought Jessie a toy gun? Probably not. But I’m pretty sure that I would have let Marc buy her one. Do I make sure that Sam has baby dolls and snuggly things as well? Absolutely, because he loves that too. All of my kids, regardless of gender, love baking and reading and coloring. But one of them also likes really cool weapons, and that’s okay with me. I’m not going to make him feel ashamed of liking it, or make him feel as though he’s wrong to want to learn more about them.
To me, there’s a difference between a discussion on gun control and a discussion on whether or not you let your kids play with toy weapons. It’s not that there isn’t a need for responsible gun control, and a definite need for a discussion on the state of mental health treatment in this country – there is. But it has very little to do with the plastic dagger that lying on the carpet at my feet, along with the colored pencils and the army guys and the Barbies. Those are toys – and tools for imagination and storytelling. For playing together, making up elaborate games and running around and being a kid. I’m in favor of all of that.