A few months ago a mother shared this story with me:
“My son’s best friend told him yesterday that his dad was a boy soldier and fired machine guns when he was thirteen. (This may be true as I think his dad is Cambodian.) Now my kindergartener is fascinated by it all and thinks it’s cool and wants to know if he’ll get to fire one. I don’t know how best to react. So far, I’m downplaying it all and have only responded to his statement that his friend’s dad was a boy soldier with: “Isn’t that sad?” And to his, will I get to fire a machine gun: “No. Children aren’t meant to be in armies, I’m sad he had to be in one.” And then I changed the subject and we started reading a bedtime story.
“I hope I’m handling this correctly. He’s now making machine gun sounds a lot when playing—and he’s never seen or heard one as we don’t watch the news or any adult TV in front of him—so that’s come from his friend too. Oy.”
My short answer is: so far, so good. My longer answer is: it’s important neither to over- nor under-react, and you didn’t. That you are afraid puts you more at risk for over-reacting, but what you said is perfect.
Your emotional tone is also important, but of course I couldn’t tell that from your email. Your focus should be calm and confident, sure of what would be dangerous and harmful, and sure of the reality of his situation. You can certainly tell him that real guns are not toys and way too dangerous in the same calm tone that you would tell him not to eat something that was poisonous. “No. You don’t want to do that. You could get killed.” For most kids, all one has to do is point to a plant and say “That’s poison oak,” and most kids won’t go near it except by mistake, and then they will feel like an idiot. If you over-react, they become intrigued. If a sign says “Wet Paint,” they have to test it.
At the same time, don’t be afraid of boys making machine gun sounds—or bombs or hand grenades, either. I don’t know where we get it. It seems to be in the genes. But playing war is a far cry from, and does not predispose or predict, a boy becoming a real warrior. In a “civilized” society one of the challenges boys face is how to be their warrior selves constructively. So don’t let your fear of war cause you to over-react and try to drum the warrior out of your son. That could have negative side effects.
Your best role is to be someone he can count on to tell the truth about the world. Your best focus is to be sure of what you know and be ready to stand with confidence when your knowledge and beliefs get tested. (It is the child’s job to test them.) It sounds like you passed this test, but are nervous about other tests to come.
For future tests, it’s important to remember not to lecture. A smart parent waits for the right moment to drop one or two good lines (just as you did.) Don’t rant. Rants are bad because your son reads it as confusion rather than confidence. He gets the idea (without reading Shakespeare) that when a person goes on and on, they protesteth too much. “If Mom were sure of what she is saying, she would say it simply and calmly. She is clearly upset about something. I am not sure what, but she clearly has issues.”
At this young age, there’s no need to go into too much detail. So if your child continues to pretend he has a machine gun, you might try: “I know too many tragedies that have come from guns, and there is no really good reason to have one, so in my house, guns are out.” Some parents rule out toy guns, also. I don’t think that is necessary, but if you can do it without sounding over-reactive, rule out toy guns, too.
For the best results, it is often a good idea to talk your positions over with a friend, husband, or father of your kids. It is the absolute best if all the adults working with your child are on the same page, but this is not always possible, and not necessary. Children can adapt to a world that is not homogeneous and consistent. They will have toit isn’t. The important thing is your confidence.
It is a useful exercise to see his assertions as questions. “I want a machine gun for Christmas” means “Mom, what do you know about machine guns?” and “How do you feel about war and killing?”
As for violence, don’t go overboard. Humans, especially boys, have aggression and violence built into their systems. Do not be afraid, but don’t ignore it. I played soldier with toy guns from age five to ten. My favorite books and movies were about war. I played war games on into adulthood. My parents were not afraid of that. (They were afraid I would kill my older brother, though.) Nonetheless, I never fought on the playground (except in sixth grade when Jimmy Rodgers and I fought over Peggy Hubby.) After age ten, I sublimated all my aggression—which I think is considerable—into sports. I only played to win; I never tried to hurt anyone.
We all are different; some of us have more incipient violence in us than others, but it is certainly normal and to be expected that your son would be interested in his best friend’s father being a boy soldier and firing a machine gun. That could sound exciting. At the same time, the experience of real violence is so scary as to make one never want to think about it again. Anyone who went through it would want to talk about it with friends in order to metabolize it into their system. Your son will come to understand the horror of violence through natural processes. It doesn’t all depend on you.
From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly , a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.
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