As parents tend to do, Patrick and I are passing this tradition on to our kids, hopefully without the emotional scarring that went with our childhoods of resistance.  They don’t have guns or action figures or any other toy implements of death. Still, we’ve been watching Seamus, our Team Elsa (from the Disney blockbuster Frozen) son, as he’s recently begun turning every stick into an imaginary gun. This is, of course, happening just as, in the headlines of the moment, actual guns are turning so many previously real people into statistics. Under the circumstances, how could I not find myself thinking about toy guns, real guns, the nature of play, the role of imagination, the place of parents, and how to (or whether to) police (ha!) that imaginary play?

When my stepdaughter Rosena was about four, she found a toy dagger at the playground, somehow smuggled it home, and was stabbing one of her beloved stuffed animals, a bunny, repeatedly with it.

In the other room, I could hear the thumps on the bedroom floor and called out, “What are you doing?” 

“Stabbin’ my bunny. I kilt her,” she responded matter-of-factly.

Seizing a “teaching moment” and undoubtedly gripped by my own childhood experiences and memories of my parents, I blustered into the bedroom with a shoebox. “Now, your bunny is dead,” I announced in my version of over-the-top momism. “You know what happens when living things die, right? It’s forever, right? Now, we have to bury her.” Rosena and I then “buried” the doll on a high shelf in her closet. I told her that we cannot hurt or kill the things (or people) we love. I told her that, because she had “killed” that bunny, she could never play with it again.

About a week later, I slipped it back into her toy basket and, when she asked why, assured her that I thought she wouldn’t hurt her toys like that again. She agreed. I recall that episode now with a certain embarrassment, but when I recently heard Rosena explaining death and loss to her little brother and sister, I thought: oh, maybe the drama of the shoebox burial was actually helpful in some fashion.

Toys matter. We’ve put a fair amount of thought into what might be called toy curation in our household.  We’ve bought nothing new and little used.  Mostly, we’ve accepted shipments of hand-me-downs from friends who just wanted “this crap” out of their houses. No guns came with them, thankfully. After all, even toy guns can mean death under the wrong circumstances.

A year ago, I visited the Cuddell Recreation Center in Cleveland with my daughter Madeline and a group of friends. That broad stretch of ball fields and paths, anchored by a gazebo and a playground, was where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann in November 2014. Rice, an African American, was playing with an Airsoft pellet gun that a friend’s Dad had bought at Walmart. A replica of an actual Colt pistol, it shot plastic pellets and looked pretty real, since the orange tip signifying “toy” was missing. However, Officer Loehmann, investigating a report that a man was carrying a gun in the park, was moving too fast to notice much. He sped up and began shooting even before his squad car stopped moving. Rice’s hands were still reportedly in his pockets. 

Though Loehmann was not indicted, the city of Cleveland paid a $6 million settlement to the Rice family and demolished the gazebo where the boy was shot. In the park that day, local activists described the shooting and its aftermath to our group. Half listening, I followed Madeline as she toddled into the playground. I tried to imagine Samaria Rice’s pain in this unremarkable place made part shrine, part soapbox by a police officer’s quick trigger finger, racism, and her son’s blood.

I thought about that toy gun in Tamir Rice’s hand and what might have been going through his head as he pointed it and played with it. Despite the age difference, it couldn’t have been that far from what regularly goes through my son’s head when he picks up a stick and points it: pop, boom, wow! The difference, of course, is that Seamus, blond and freckled and unmistakably white, would run little risk of being shot down by a policeman, even eight years from now with a replica toy gun in his hands.

Blasters, Blasters, Everywhere

Toys are a big business in this country, raking in $19.4 billion in 2015, according to the retail tracking firm NPD Group. Our family is not responsible for even a dime of this. Not surprisingly, then, my announcement that we were all going to spend a rainy afternoon at a local Toys “R” Us store came like a bolt from the blue for the kids.

I wanted to see what kind of toy weaponry was for sale there. I was curious, among other things, about whether the boys at school who had taught Seamus about superheroes, bad guys, and Star Wars had ignited in my son a love of weaponry; I was curious, that is, as to how he would react to the walls of guns I imagined Toys “R” Us displaying.

We got into our car as if it were Christmas Eve, Seamus beside himself with excitement, Madeline on a contact high from her brother.  I was experiencing my own contact high, taking my kids on their first research trip.

What we found was not exactly what I expected — on many levels.

Seamus was quickly overwhelmed by the glut of everything — lots of pictures of toys on boxes, but not a lot to pick up. (It was, in that sense, the very opposite of our visits to the Goodwill store, where you can sit on the floor and play with all those second-hand toys as long as you put them back afterwards.) Not so surprisingly, in retrospect, he went straight for what was familiar, what he could grab in his hand and actually look at: the books. It took some effort to wrestle him away from Five Stories About Princesses and enlist him in my quest for bad toys. (Madeline had, by then, fallen asleep.)

I had finally found the Nerf “blasters,” but he wasn’t interested.  “Let’s not go down this aisle, okay, Mom?” 

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