This question, so commonly asked by concerned parents, has understandably gotten even more significant, given the multiple mass shooting tragedies of last year and the national conversation that has ensued.
It’s also been a central topic in my parenting classes, as families strive to understand their children’s timeless interest in “good guys” versus “bad guys”, determine what is developmentally appropriate and normal, and reflect upon their individual family values.
I remember when I took the boys to Disneyland a few months ago and saw firsthand this utter fascination with weaponry. Whether it was the mini Luke Skywalkers and Darth Vaders sparring with light sabers near Space Mountain, or the Captain Hook/ Jack Sparrows dueling with pistols and swords in the Pirates of the Caribbean store, I saw children (mostly boys) of all sizes delighting in any type of power weapon they could get their hands on. And this fascination seemed to transcend all ethnic, cultural and even generational barriers when I saw many Dads, Uncles, and even Grandpas joining in!
I know the first time I saw Conor, age 4, fashioning a gun out of a banana and yelling, “Pow, pow, you’re dead Mama!” I immediately had visions of a violent future and wondered where I had gone wrong!
Yet the first issue to remember is that a four-year old saying “Pow you’re dead” is not the same as an adult saying it. A four year-old has a preschool level understanding of what a gun or killing is (often when I asked Conor about the meaning of “kill” I got answers like, “you’re asleep, you’re a skeleton or you go away for a long time”). So it’s important to remember not to put an adult level of understanding of guns— that shooting people means they want to be violent and hurt people–on young children’s play.
In their book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, Laura Davis and Janis Keyser outline a number of reasons, both developmental and societal, that make this type of play so common in young boys. One of the primary reasons is the need to gain power. As children grow from toddlers into the preschool/school age years, their awareness of the world around them becomes bigger, but so does their realization of how little they control or understand it. So, as Janis and Laura state in the book, two of the underlying questions children often ask during gun play are, “How can I have power in this world?” and “How can I make things happen?”
That’s why this is also a common time to see other types of power research including physical aggression and exclusionary play emerging. Children at this age are also beginning to understand the power of language, so this is also a time where body and poop words, and sometimes even name calling and swearing surface.
Other reasons the book gives for gun play include trying to learn about our society’s deep interest in guns, trying to understand death (which is another awareness that becomes stronger at this age) and also seeing the cause and effect that gun play has on adults.
Of course, pre-teen and teenagers also have the need to feel powerful, and also have the added social need of impressing their peers. A great reference article from Family.com, describes the developmental needs of boys at this age, and what to observe in order to determine if their gun play (both with toy weapons and video games) is normal and when to be concerned: (http://family.go.com/parenting/pkg-tween/article-791794-war-games-and-preteen-boys/).
Overall, knowing the reasons behind gun play and putting it in a developmental perspective is a great start to feeling like you are not raising a violent child. And deciding how to handle it, gives you the opportunity to reflect upon your family vision and think about the values you want to teach your children during those moments.
For example, one of the fundamental values in our family are the ideas of compassion and empathy. This meant that in addition to trying to understand my children’s point of view (like why power play was so important) I also wanted them to hear my feelings around it. So to strike the balance, I began saying, “I can see you want to shoot, but I don’t like being shot. If you both want to play with each other, make sure that shooting is okay with both of you.” I also knew I didn’t want real looking guns in the house. A reallooking gun would always only be a gun, while a Lego or branch that was a gun one minute, could also be something else another. This rule about no real-looking guns also gave me the opportunity to talk with the boys about how we feel about guns and their impact in the world.
So next time your sweet, loving son (or daughter) raises their weapon of choice at you, don’t panic! Remember that it is normal and empowering for them and also another opportunity to clarify and teach the values that are most important to you and your family.
Hold on to your pencil boxes, because the Back to School season has arrived! One of the annual activities at our house this time of year involves taking stock and stocking up. Whether it’s classroom supplies, school uniforms, or physical exams, the fall always seems to be the time to take an inventory of what we have, what we need, and what we can discard (we’ve currently got three working piles growing in our living room).
So in the spirit of taking stock, I’ve decided to put together another set of piles for the new school year. I’m calling them my family vision piles, based on the term coined by parent educators, Janis Keyser and Laura Davis. A family vision, they explain, is seeing the big picture of where you are going as a family, what values you most want to teach and model, and determining what is most important. Basically, by establishing a vision, you set-up the long-term intentions and goals for your family for the year. Here’s what my piles look like so far:
Discard Pile: Like the stained uniform shirts, and ripped 3 ring binders, what do I want to discard this year when it comes to our family?
1. The sound and quality of my voice during times of stress. This carping, droning, (dare I say nagging?) voice, usually heard in the morning rush or frenzied afternoons of homework and practices, tends to repeat itself in 5-10 second intervals, with phrases such as, “Come on!” “Hurry up!” or “Don’t forget..!” In addition to being both annoying and agitating to everyone involved, this voice and it’s shrill requests, become increasingly futile as time goes on.
2. The myth of being a perfect supermom. I’m also going to try and discard my unrealistic expectations that I can control everything and do it all. And in case I needed further motivation, two recent articles, aptly entitled, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All and Why Supermoms are Sad, confirmed that moms who expect that a work/life balance can be achieved easily (or at all), are more unhappy that those who accept that they can’t do everything, and tradeoffs will have to be made.
3. The blame and guilt I put on myself, my family, and the world in general, when life gets stressful. Like the supermom myth above, I will work to discard these negative feelings that seem to crop up whenever I am most stressed, and to replace them with compassion and forgiveness, remembering that we all are generally doing the best we can.
Add Pile: Next, what do I want to add to our family, along with the new lunch boxes and football cleats this year?
1. More interactive communication. I will make a conscious effort to add more interactive conversations with my boys and husband each week, with sentences beginning with, “What do you think of…?” “How was your…?” and “What are you feelings about…?” (as opposed to that nagging voice I hope to discard above). My goal is to stay as connected with them as possible, even when life gets hectic.
2. A weekly electronics-free time zone. This idea came to me one desperate summer afternoon in the midst of a computer game/ tv show/ web surfing binge our entire family was on. As I noticed our levels of agitation increasing with each successive sound and click coming from the machines. I desperately ordered a complete shutdown of devices for an “electronics-free” hour. And wow! After the initial caffeine-like withdrawal symptoms, a peace and calm descended upon our household that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Books were cracked open, lego towers were built, and actual conversations were initiated!
3. More time and flexibility during rush periods. Finally, in place of that supermom mindset, I will work to add more time to prepare and organize during rush hours, as well as giving myself flexibility and permission to let go when all doesn’t go smoothly (remembering that when my sons forget their water bottles or we arrive a few minutes late to practice, the world and my competence has not suddenly come to an end)!
Keep Pile: And finally, like the tried and true backpack my 11 year-old is using for his third consecutive year, what are the things I want to keep and continue in our family?
Those elements and activities that reflect our shared values of laughing together, slowing down when we can, nurturing ourselves and each other, and connecting in general.
Some, but not all, of the items in this pile will include:
- Family mealtimes at least 2-3 times every week (hopefully more)
- Unstructured family time, with no other commitment except hanging out
- Family movie nights with popcorn, whenever time permits
- Maintaining a sense of humor
- Continuing those activities we enjoy on our own, and together, that help us stay refueled and healthy
- Remembering an attitude of gratitude
- Breathing in, breathing out
- Letting go
- Did I mention a sense of humor?
So that’s where I’m starting. Although I’m sure there will be plenty of bumps and setbacks along the way, I’m hoping that keeping my family vision in mind, will enable me to make the best decisions possible in the midst of the action-packed and frenzied moments ahead. Here’s to a happy, reflective, and intentional school year for us all!