Several parents in England are upset over their children having been disciplined by school staff for doing nothing more than pretending to shoot each other with their fingers. School officials call this sort of play "unacceptable" and break it up whenever they notice it occurring. But a lot of people may not realize how common this attitude is among those who work with children, even here in the gun-lovin' US of A. Every preschool I ever worked at had a "no gun play" policy. Teachers were expected to quickly pull aside the pretending child, remind him or her of the rule, and apply a time out to repeat offenders. As with most policies I think are stupid, I only enforced it when someone was watching.
One mom at the laid-back hippie school where I taught a class of 3-year-olds, seemed to catch on to my rather lax attitude about gun play. She cornered me in my classroom one morning and said that she noticed that children had been pretending to shoot each other on the playground. Since I wasn't even out there and thus had absolutely no control over what the kids were doing at that moment, I just said, "Oh really?" and shook my head in a those crazy kids kind of way.
But it wasn't over. She put her hands on her hips and said, "Aren't you going to stop them?"
Biting back what I really wanted to say (I think the rule is stupid, you're a huge pain in the ass, your precious Eli is usually the one pretend-shooting people), I simply stated, "I stop it when I notice it." and went back to what I was doing.
Later in the day, when she came to pick Eli, she managed to trap both me and her son on the back porch during play time. The kid and I exchanged a glance like, Holy shit, we're in trouble. But she had apparently decided on a passive-aggressive approach.
"Eli," she said in a falsely chipper tone, "Don't you just love pretending to blow bubbles at your friends?"
"Uh..." Eli said. "Yeaah. Blowing bubbles is fun." He pulled out a pretend bubble wand, puffed his cheeks, and blew into it. "Pop pop," he said.
There was a long moment where the kid and I just looked at each other. "That's great, Eli," I said, utterly without conviction.
"Redirection," his mom said, as if I had never heard the word before. Then she flounced away, apparently having made her point.
Over the next few weeks, every time Eli saw me seeing him playing guns, he would quickly switch to bubble mode, transforming his "pow pow" into a "pop pop." Whatever buddy he was playing with would look around for the buzz-killing adult before switching to his own "pop pop" until they were safely out of sight again. Eli's mom's "redirection" had ultimately accomplished nothing except to help him better bullshit the lame-ass adults in his life, which, thanks to our little meeting on the porch, now included me.
Although Eli's mom was uptight and misguided, I can sympathize with her ultimate goal. After all, she didn't want her precious baby to grow up and hurt someone. She didn't want to be responsible for the kind of kid who would shoot up the school or go on a crime spree. After all, just a few years before this happened, two teenagers in Colorado had forever changed the connotation of the word "columbine" from that of a lovely mountain flower to that of grainy surveillance footage of boys committing acts of unspeakable brutality. People wondered what kind of parents could be responsible for such monsters; surely someone had dropped the ball when it came to monitoring the music they listened to, the video games and movies they enjoyed. How far back did this savagery go? What were the earliest warning signs? Parents resolved that their kids wouldn't become the next Harris or Klebold and took a much more active interest in what they were doing for fun with their friends, searching for violent tendencies that they could lovingly nip in the bud.
What they seem to overlook seem is that criminals and murderers aren't the only ones using guns. We live in a world full of soldiers, policemen, hunters and marksmen. Whether or not you agree with these people's motivations, it would be hard to argue that every single person who uses a gun for any reason is evil. How can we simultaneously support the troops and believe in complete disarmament? How can we get our children to trust policemen if they're terrified of being shot by one? Like it or not, human beings and guns have evolved side by side. And as long as guns have existed, children have pretended to kill each other with them. We cannot control children's imaginations. And in my opinion, we shouldn't even try.
Lest you think I'm a card-carrying member of the NRA, in real life I've always been scared of guns. They're loud and they're specifically designed to maim and kill. I prefer to avoid contact with them and have never actually fired one (though I've been nearby while others have fired them). But as distasteful as I find actual guns to be, I'm drawn to works of fiction in which they are prevalent. My favorite TV series is Breaking Bad and one of my favorite writers is Elmore Leonard. It's fun to empathize with both the cops and the robbers, to imagine a life of drama and danger that is way outside of your comfort zone. That's what playing pretend is all about.
A lot of my favorite childhood memories involve gun play. My friends and I would roam the trails and dry washes of our little corner of southern New Mexico, fighting off imaginary enemies and occasionally turning our weapons on each other. Little did we understand that the very ground we played upon had been host to extreme acts of violence, settlers versus Apaches in brutal fights that left scores of people, many of whom were women and children, stone cold dead. The story of westward expansion is intimately intertwined with that of guns, to the point where children are still acting out that drama several generations later. We can't undo brutal acts of the past by attempting to inhibit our children's understanding of history.
So how can we allow our children to have truly free play while ensuring that they don't grow up to be remorseless killers? Well, we can start by adopting a more nuanced view towards firearms instead of clinging to the absolute notion that they are always bad. We may prefer not to keep guns in our homes, but plenty of responsible, non-murderous people do, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We can also be sure to emphasize the difference between reality and make-believe. In real life, unlike in play, shooting at people has serious consequences and often leads to death, injury, or loss of freedom. Most importantly, we can let kids give us the opportunity to correct their behavior. Children tend to have a strong sense of morals from an early age and they know when "play" has veered into "attack" (for example, if two boys bust into the playhouse and open fire on some girls who are having an innocent tea party). Under circumstances like these, an adult is usually called upon to intervene (often after a crying girl yells, "I'm telling!"). This opens up a teachable moment for the grownup, who can make sure the boys understand why the girls are so upset and to emphasize the concept of fair play. Hopefully the shooter will take this lesson to heart and, if he finds himself in Iraq or Afghanistan someday (as he very well might), he will choose to spare those who are not "playing" the real-life game of warfare.
Guns aren't going anywhere, no matter how much we wish our children could live in a world free from violence. Boys and girls (but mostly boys) will play out the world's dramas on their own small stages, in the playgrounds and backyards of our relatively peaceful homes and schools. With a few tragic exceptions, children will confine their killings to those in the virtual worlds of gaming, fiction, and imagination. And to me, that really doesn't seem so bad.