Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The controversial debate of boys and guns

On Sunday my two year old was playing beautifully with “Bristol Builder”, a construction toy with wooden blocks, sticks and circles. He turned to me with an “L” shape he’d made and said, “look mummy, a shooter.”

What to do in this situation is a question many parents ask. Of course, guns are not nice things, they kill people, so the natural reaction is to say “no dear, it’s not a shooter but a lovely flower.” But every time you say no to a child they want it more so that’s not necessarily a productive answer.

The issue is complex and controversial. Until recently there was no debate: guns were bad toys and the existence of one in a toy box would be tut-tutted about by other parents. If my son made a “shooter” at someone else’s house there would probably be disapproval and I would be embarrassed and mutter apologetically about how I’d no idea where he’d learnt about such things. And I have no idea where he’s learnt such things. Guns are not part of our daily conversation and I’m not sure my children have ever seen one. Because of this, watching my two sons hold fingers up and say “tsch tsch” as they shoot at each other, I wonder if this desire is somehow inherent in their male make up.

Others, it seems, agree and apparently fashions are changing too: the official line is that playing with guns is now no longer completely taboo. Government advice, I read in an article provided by my sons’ nursery, is that “boys should be encouraged to take part in role-play involving superheroes and toy guns.”

Don’t be shocked. This is not some crazy policy but a sensible acceptance of our modern society and a child’s exposure to it. “Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys’ play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it. This is not necessary as long as you help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment.” Okay, so there’s a bit of government babble but the basic idea is that you don’t have to make a fuss about boys playing at guns if a sensible discussion about what they’re all about goes with it.

I think this makes good sense. It would be lovely to give children a world without guns but that is not our world. Death and violence is sadly all around us. At three my eldest son asked me what “killed” meant after listening in the car to a brief news bulletin on our local radio station: with the War on Terror the word is used almost every day. I didn’t shy away but gave him a full explanation, including prison for the perpetrator. Many people would tell me to turn the news off but I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful, or realistic, to spend your time isolating them – and therefore you – from the world out there.

When my disapproving friends react I will feel slightly culpable – I let my boys watch Power Rangers and they are fascinated by the Daleks. Power Rangers are “goodies” but they still fire at the baddies; our superheroes are inherently violent. “You be the red one and I’ll be the black one,” my four year old told his younger brother then they ran around blasting each other.

It’s reality – these are the games they love, an acceptance my friends with only girls find hard. We are listening to High School Musical in the car to dilute our diet of Spiderman, Daleks and Power Rangers. They love it but nevertheless, when it comes to make-believe in the garden, I suspect shooting aliens from outer space will be chosen over singing and dancing.

The article quoted is “Let boys play with guns, says DCSF” – Nursery World, 10 January 2008

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