Here is Woody this afternoon sitting on top of our car with a beat-up wooden pistol I bought him last year. Just after I took this shot, our next door neighbor, a woman in her 40s who we are just getting to know, and who I think we are going to like a lot, came out of her house. Woody aimed at her and made a crack sound. She played along, but then asked him, half-joking, "Hey, why are you always trying to kill me?" He paused. The question missed the mark, and he wasn't sure how to respond. He's not trying to kill her. He's trying to play with her. Why? Because he likes connecting with people, and playing is what kids do to learn about the world. When kids play guns, the game is shoot and be shot, get up and play again.
Her pause was brief. When he did not answer, she played along again for a moment or two, then smiled and said goodbye, got in her car and drove away.
This was one of the better exchanges he's had while playing guns. I have other stories that aren't so innocuous, that are startling in their violence against kids in the name of teaching peace. Those might come up in the next 142 posts. It's likely. My kid plays guns a lot.
So, we've had a lot of experience dealing with different reactions to gun play. Most men get it. At parties and potlucks, the dads often play along. There was one young guy who worked in the produce section at our food co-op in Tallahassee who used to hide behind the display stands and play guns with Woody as I wound the cart around picking up fruits and vegetables. It was terrific. I wrote a comment card about it.
Women often have a hard time with it. Their reactions are sometimes out of sync with the play. They are uncomfortable. They make comments they don't usually make. There's an edge sometimes to what they say. They point out his favorite subject of play as an oddity: "Wow! He sure does love guns, huh?" (But do we say this with other topics? "Gee whiz, she sure does love the sandbox!" "Wow, he really loves dinosaurs." "She is obsessed with hop-scotch! Haha!") A couple of mothers have ignored Woody's attempt at engagement entirely and walked away, or shepherded their own kids somewhere else on the playground.
It seems to me that these women fear real violence so much that it makes them irrational. They see it where it is not. They see it in cork guns and gun shapes bitten out of sandwiches and finger pistols. They label that particular play violence and justify to themselves a cold or unkind reaction. At its most benign level, this means that they miss an opportunity to connect with a particular child when the play du jour is shoot-'em-up. But on a more serious level, when these women themselves are mothers or have a great influence on the life of a young child, usually but now always a little boy, their discomfort speaks:
Violence is everywhere, even in your toys, even in your head, kid, even when you don't know it, and I'm afraid of you.
This is damage. This is real violence. This is willfully warping little boys' minds into distrusting themselves and the world. We don't have to do it. We can examine and exorcise our own demons and not release them into our children. We can shoot back, play dead, or change the game in a friendly way (such as by becoming bullet-proof, bomb-proof, and laser-proof giant robots, which require surreptitious reprogramming to be stopped from crushing all the government buildings in our cities). We can tell our sisters-in-law and our friends and the mothers of our kids' friends that our kids are trying to play with them. We can suggest ways they may want to play back. Or we can take them out to lunch and practice satisfying and realistic dying sounds together for the next time our little Liams and Olivers and Valeries and Ezras want to take down the bad guys with their pretend pistols and make the world right again.
This picture was taken by my friend Candice while Woody and her son, Arlo, were playing World War II in a ditch at the park a couple of weeks back.