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Boys and Gun Love: A Thinking Mother’s Dilemma

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Posted on Jun 10, 2014

By Pamela Alma Weymouth

(Page 2)

The men in my life suggest my concerns about gunplay are as unreasonable as such school crackdowns. I caught our 67-year-old godfather teaching my sons how to turn blades of sea grass into guns, a game he had played as a boy. My sons’ father argued that he and his brother had spent hours tossing fake bombs over the neighbors’ bushes. Now, he is a public school teacher and his brother is an anti-war Democrat, a social worker and a Buddhist.

Veteran kindergarten and pre-K teacher Lisa Stapp of Edna Maguire Elementary School in Mill Valley, Calif., said, “Boys are always making weapons out of cubes,” but she believes it is the adult’s job to explore it rather than squash it. “If you explore it more, you start to draw out a scenario and eventually the violence gets neutralized into an engaging play of some sort,” whereas if you ban it “we end up shaming children,” which causes problems down the road. “Every time we say stop, we curtail all that brain growth,” she noted.

Psychotherapist Lele Diamond, a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder and childhood development, agreed that “aggressive play is a child’s laboratory.” It is “really helpful—both to channel it and temper it.” As long as the parent or educator sets limits that allow for all children to be safe, she suggests that aggressive play is not only healthy, but a necessary tool for children’s social-emotional development. Kids know the difference between “pretend” aggression and real aggression. We adults should not conflate the two.

So if gunplay is healthy, perhaps even necessary, then what about toy guns? Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin, educators who have studied the impact of war play, maintain that when it comes to gunplay or war toys, the best kinds of toys are those crafted by the kids themselves. Legos, blocks, sticks, cardboard boxes, toys that can transform from guns to magic wands to towers, for example. This way the child is in charge of the play, rather than the toy being in charge of the child. Carlsson-Paige and Levin explain that when TV was deregulated in the 1980s, children lost all of the protections that had heretofore kept them from being commercially exploited. This, in turn, led to a change in the way children played. “The emphasis in play shifted from ‘What can I do with this toy?’ to ‘Can I get another one?’ ” Carlsson-Paige said. Toy-driven play does not foster the kind of imaginative problem solving skills that help children figure out right from wrong, good from bad, and their place in the group.

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Yet, is gunplay OK for all kids? Diamond suggests that for kids who grow up in neighborhoods plagued by violence, parents have a right, even a duty, to toe a different line. “It’s a life and death issue—it’s worth a tooth and nail fight” because the kind of violent play some of these boys engage in is not creative play, but “role practicing,” she argued. It’s part of their real world. And if “moms come down hard” against gunplay in these situations, Diamond contended, “it’s because they need to.”

My introspective son Aidan asked me to play at the carnival gun range, so I said yes. I tried to remember it’s just a game. I have photographs of myself posing as a 20-something at a carnival, pretending to look tough with a long black toy rifle in hand, a big grin on my face. This time, when I aimed, the water shot into the clown’s mouth making an orange, red, blue and green balloon inflate until POP! I thought of my grandfather whose access to a 28-gauge shotgun made it that much easier to take his own life at the age of 48, a trauma that took him from his young wife, four children and his future grandchildren, myself included. A trauma that continues to reverberate through our family generations later.

Aidan’s green balloon exploded first and he won a small blue whale. But Aidan wanted the biggest stuffed animal, the one the man said we couldn’t have. So instead we were down $10 and my son wasn’t satisfied. Had he learned something? I think not, because although we return year after year to the carnival, the cheap toys end up in the trash and my sons forget, seduced once more by the barker, who may as well be shouting, “Be a man! Be a man! Shoot a gun and you’ll be strong, tough, invincible!”

Psychologists Daniel Kindlon and Michael Thompson write in their book “Raising Cain,” “The media serves up as role models Neanderthal professional wrestlers, hockey ‘goons,’ ready at the slightest provocation to drop their sticks and pummel an opponent; multi-millionaire professional athletes in trouble with the law, demanding ‘respect’ from fans and the press; and angry, drug-using, misogynist rock-stars. … These are not visions of manhood that celebrate emotional introspection or empathy.” And yet these educators suggest that the only way to raise healthier boys, ones able to master their aggressive impulses, is to “give our boys an emotional vocabulary and the encouragement to use it” so that “they will unclench their hearts.”


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