Go Ahead and Shoot

My kids brought home two red plastic water guns from our most recent visit to their grandmother’s house. These little pistols are old school, the way I remember them from childhood: detailed to look realistic, fitting snugly into a small hand. When my three year old son Gabriel first saw them, his eyes sparkled. “Mama. That is a gun,” he said, the same way I might have said ‘that is a diamond’ or ‘that is a tropical island’ if either of those treasures were ever presented to me.

Previously, we had a single water gun that drifted around the backyard. One of the kids found it in the bushes months ago. Space age in design, it doesn’t really resemble weaponry, and the trigger doesn’t work, so it’s not exactly a favorite. We have a soft sword that is part of a knight’s costume, and my son regularly builds spears from Legos and Tinker Toys. Gabriel has to invent a mediating story to turn a Tinker Toy structure into a shooting machine. When aggressive fantasies are firmly embedded in creative play, they seem like healthy and positive expressions. Swishing a stick through the air to impale an imaginary dragon? Sure! Why not?

But when I saw how Gabriel looked at those guns, our lack of a clear family policy on aggressive creative play suddenly felt like a problem. Confronted with an attractive toy that looks like a gun, feels like a gun, and is called a gun, I felt very uncomfortable. Gabriel doesn’t understand violence, or the fact that guns kill people; he certainly doesn’t desire that anyone be hurt. On the other hand, might running around the backyard in hot pursuit of other kids with a water gun in hand, gleefully shouting I’m going to get you! or even I’m going to kill you! make all weapons somehow more acceptable? In short, could water guns be gateway toys that open the door to more truly violent play?

I’d come up with no resolutions this morning when Gabriel appeared on the back deck with a water gun in hand, asking me to help him fill it. He hadn’t experienced shooting yet. Still conflicted, I made my way across wet grass, from the clothesline to the deck, to show him how: first pull the white plastic plug out, turn on the faucet of the rain barrel, then hold the opening underneath to fill the toy slowly with water. He carefully replaced the plug, then pointed the gun at my forehead with a big grin on his face.

Mama, I’m going to get you!!

I headed instinctively into the yard, dodging streams of water that just barely missed me. It’s hard not to laugh, yelp, and run when a water gun is aimed at your back. I instantly remembered deep in my body the feeling of shooting and being shot by water guns as a child, running with bare feet on prickly dry summer grass. It is so fun!  And it was so fun this morning! In the thrill of the game, I forgot all my qualms. And when I told Gabriel it was time for me to finish hanging the laundry, he looked down at his water gun for a thoughtful moment, then looked back up at me and asked, “Are any of the plants in the garden thirsty? I could give them a drink with my watering gun!”

So I sent him to the garden, and watched out of the corner of my eye as he enthusiastically squirted bright zinnias and baby fuzzy melons. We had to fill his gun back up twice. He asked if he could water the blueberry bushes, because didn’t they look thirsty too? I watched him, serious and thorough in the new task he’d set out for himself (quenching the thirst of a yard-full of plants in 95 degree weather is no easy proposition). The gun was an effective prop for his caregiving fantasies, just as it had been for his aggressive, power-wielding fantasies.

I’m glad I didn’t come up with any hard rules about toy guns in our house. While I was considering the problem, Gabriel reminded me that no matter what the game or toy is, his imagination is engaged. All the rich, varied parts of him will find expression one way or another in open, creative play. Sometimes gentle guidance is called for, but sometimes – perhaps more often than I realize – stepping aside and getting out of the way is the best thing we can do for our kids.

What about you? Do you have an approach to handling imaginary violent play in your family?

I’d love to read your thoughts here, or at my blog, Homemade Time, where you can find more reflections on motherhood.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.