Parenting

How do We Talk to Our Kids About Guns?

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I wrote this piece prior to the tragic shootings in Tucson. I considered not running it out of sensitivity for the shooting victims and victims, in general, of gun violence. But the truth is guns are a BIG part of our culture in the United States. They aren't going away, and likely, this isn't the last time my family of four in Berkeley or your families will talk about guns. Without further ado, read on and tell me what you think. -Elisa

I had great reservations when I first glanced at Ari's Christmas list this year. Three of the five items he asked for were various nerf blasters: the CS-6 (pictured on right), the CS-35, and another one.

Even though they shoot foam darts, they look like big guns to me that I even nervously joked with my husband, "Is Ari stockpiling weapons?"

My husband, by the way, did not share my fears. And since I'm not a guy, I took his lead on this one. But I did lay some ground rules on the nerf blasters. For example, Ari and his friends are not allowed to shoot each other in the face and they are not allowed to aim at girls -- even "pretend" shoot with their fingers.

For most parts of the country, it probably appears that I am making a big deal out of nothing. It's not like the nerf blaster is even a BB gun. But please keep in mind that letting boys shoot each other in my backyard is a big deal here in the People's Republic of Berkeley. How are they supposed to learn to be pacifists when they are keeping tabs on how many rounds of darts they have used on each other?

You could say I was intrigued by this article in Brain, Child about a mother in rural Pennsylvania teaching her children how to hunt -- with real guns. Initially, I was looking for her validation that Ari's nerf blasters were okay and that he won't grow up to become, gulp, the next Charlton Heston. But I enjoyed her article and was struck by how guns neatly fit in with her family's upbringing, culture and philosophy. Their son's school, which she and her husband both attended, even had an NRA representative teach the kids about gun safety.  

Rural America is a lot more nuanced. Take our household. We are not card-carrying NRA members, and I support a variety of gun control measures. Yet admittedly, if we woke up to a prolonged red dawn scenario, it is reassuring to me to know that among the neighbors on our road, there would be a useful collection of water wells, wood stoves, generators, chain saws, tools, ATVs, horses, fishing poles, bows, a whole lot of know-how, and a whole lot of guns. It isn’t such a stretch to imagine starting a fire and sending the kids to bring home a couple of rabbits for dinner. And that sounds fine, assuming they can hit their targets, and to do that requires practice.

Practice. Practice involves repetition, a measure of autonomy, initiative, and opportunities to succeed and to make mistakes. But learning to hunt is a different ball of wax from practicing scales on a piano, so when the boys set out with free roam of about thirty acres with their slingshots and a pocket full of rocks, I hold my breath even though they can recite the rules verbatim. Ditto for when they go to play at friends’ houses and we find out the supervision of the BB guns is a little loose. My husband is right. In those cases, the kids need to be confident handling any kinds of weapons correctly.

Granted, there's no hunting here in Berkeley and I doubt our largely vegetarian household will ever want to go. But I -- and I have noticed DH, too -- have made it a point to share with young Ari our personal philosophies around guns especially in the context of war.

Ari knows that his father was a soldier in the Army, and he is constantly telling his friends about it. But most recently, when he told us that his favorite part of a kids' anime cartoon was the "war," DH became stern with him: "Why do you like war, Ari? War kills people, including kids and mommies and daddies."

At the time another little boy was staying at our house for a sleepover. He immediately piped up, "I don't like war."

"Good," Markos responded.

"I don't like war either!" Ari exclaimed. You could tell that he learned something he hadn't heard before. For that, I was relieved.

I've also made it a point to tell him that real guns kill people and that they can go off automatically so he should not touch them. With his assurances, it appears that gunplay will be restricted to plastic -- and our backyard.

Does your family have a personal philosophy about gunplay? What have you told your children about guns?