Dudes with Guns

“Beth, when are you and Mommy going to make a decision about Pokémon?” Noah asked about a week and half ago. Noah’s best friend Sasha introduced him to Pokémon a few months ago and he’s been after us ever since to let him start collecting the cards. He knew the violence of the game made us uncomfortable so he had proposed that he buy the cards with his own money and only play at Sasha’s house. He’s already allowed to play Pokémon with Sasha’s cards at his house because we have a utilitarian “different houses, different rules” policy when it comes to violent play.

Beth glanced at me. “We have, Noah,” I said. It was really me who had finally a made a decision. Beth had read a set of online instructions for Pokémon and decided the violence was abstract enough to be harmless. She also thought that what attracts him to Pokémon is the complicated set of rules, not the fighting itself. Still, the parts of the tutorial I overheard, about what to do when your Pokémon character gets poisoned or burned, left me feeling a little queasy. So I waffled and put Noah off while I consulted a couple of acquaintances. One gave me a somewhat pat boys-will-be-boys answer and the other said none of her five kids had ever been interested but when her nephew wanted Pokémon cards for his birthday she looked into it and decided not to buy them. Lacking clear guidance and with my gut feeling in conflict with Beth’s, I came up with an uneasy compromise:

“If you still want to play when your birthday comes, then you can start buying the cards with your own money and you can play at home, not only at Sasha’s house, but I won’t play it with you.” The three-month waiting period was an attempt on my part to run out the clock. I think if Sasha loses interest in Pokémon before May, Noah will, too. I don’t really expect this to work; I understand some kids play this game for years, but I thought it was worth a try. It’s probably been three months already that Noah’s been pestering us about Pokémon, so if last six months, I’ll know he’s serious about it and we’ll give it a try. The stipulation that he use his own money mirrors my mom’s gun-rule when my sister and I were kids and wanted cap pistols and water guns. She allowed us to play with them, but we had to buy them ourselves. It was a policy that struck a balance by avoiding making the guns forbidden fruit, while clearly communicating her distaste for such playthings. I added not playing Pokémon with him for the same reason. As carefully as I thought it through, though, I still wasn’t really happy with my decision.

In a way, I think we’ve been spoiled. If you’ve read a lot of parenting articles or if you’ve talked to a lot of mothers of boys, you’ve surely heard the argument that boys are inherently violent, they just can’t help it, if you deny them toy guns they will bite their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into gun shapes in order to have a weapon. This has not been our experience. Noah has never been much interested in guns or violent play. Partly this might be because we sheltered him. He didn’t know what a gun was until he was three and a half. Whenever he saw one in a picture and asked what it was, we would play dumb. “Hmm. I don’t know? What do you think it is?” This charade unraveled when we made the mistake of checking Dr. Seuess’s Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/Thidwick-Big-Hearted-Moose.html) out of the library without perusing it first. The plot revolves around the moose being pursued by hunters so we had to break down and explain what a gun was. When Noah was four and a half and my mother and stepfather got him a play castle for Christmas, we threw out all the weapons. There was a strict, no-violent play rule at his daycare and he only watched PBS or the occasion carefully vetted G-rated movie, so he was not exposed to much on-screen violence.

Things were a bit more free-wheeling at the Purple School. No toy weapons were provided, but if children fashioned their own from sticks on the playground, it was tolerated, as long as the sticks were always pointed at imaginary enemies and never at classmates. It was here Noah saw children playing at war for the first time. Most of the boys and some of the girls in his class were obsessed with pirates and they staged marine battles on the playground all that year. I didn’t like it, but I put up with it. When I co-oped, I watched as Noah participated in these battles. He always seemed more interested in elaborating on the narrative of the game and inventing new plot twists than in the shoot-em-up aspect of the game.

At home, he never turned sticks or sandwiches into guns. Once, while surfing online for games he found a kung-fu game (on the Taco Bell website of all places) that I put the kibosh on, and since then he has occasionally come to us to ask if he can play games he finds. (One he told us was called Violent Mystery. It was actually Venice Mystery.) He didn’t seem to chafe under our rules, and even explained why the castle people have no weapons to a friend who asked, in a completely comfortable and matter of-fact-way. “We don’t play games about fighting or hurting people here.” Meanwhile, as he gets older, we are relaxing a little. We are letting him watch some scarier G-rated movies, and I let him buy a pirate game with little cannons that actually shoot tiny wooden cannon balls. (When hit, the ships retreat, but they never sink so no one is hurt.)

On Friday, Noah had a friend over after school. We are in the midst of the transition from mainly mom-initiated play dates to mainly kid-initiated play dates. I still arrange play dates for Noah because he’ll play happily with almost anyone I invite, but left to his own devices, he’d play exclusively with Sasha. I want to keep his other friendships alive, for balance and as a hedge against a falling-out. This play date I’d set up with a boy we know from nursery school, who is now in Noah’s afternoon class. I really like Elias. He’s friendly and easy-going and he and Noah always have fun together.

The play date started out well. The first thing they wanted to do was show me the Scholastic book order forms they’d gotten at school. Elias was planning to order a Scooby-Doo book in Spanish. Noah was undecided. Next, they wanted to measure the giant strip of fruit leather Elias had earned at school for good behavior. (It was seventeen inches long.) Then they split it in two and Elias offered Noah the slightly longer half. A quick game of online Monopoly followed. It took Noah (who is preternaturally good at this game) only a half hour to take down Elias and two imaginary electronic players. As the game was winding down, I suggested they play outside. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and 50 degrees. They agreed and I inflated the bouncy castle for them.

Once they’d had their fill of bouncing, Noah pushed the button to deflate the castle. Suddenly, Elias dashed back into the collapsing castle. He was stuck in a monster’s trap and calling for help. Noah extended him a stick. Elias grabbed it and Noah pulled him to safety. Then they were running around the yard, looking for clues to solve a mystery. Elias climbed back into the now completely deflated castle and pulled one side over himself. It was a tent and they were under assault from the bad guys. Elias snatched the stick he’d dropped nearby after his rescue from the monster’s trap and he pulled it inside. He poked it out of the tent and began to shoot. “We’re not just mystery-solvers,” he said. “We’re also dudes with guns.”

I stood, stunned, wondering if I should put a stop to this or not. Elias had caught me by surprise and this situation comes up so rarely I’d lost track of the rules. Meanwhile, Noah was acting as a lookout, spotting new bad guys for Elias to shoot and contributing to the gunfire sound effects. Then he seized a red plastic hockey stick and he was shooting, too. And smiling.

It was the smile more than anything that made my stomach drop. He caught my eye. I didn’t smile back at him. He looked away, and kept shooting.

When Beth came home that evening she and I talked about it. This time, she was the one more opposed to the pretend violence. She was a little surprised I hadn’t put a stop to it at once, but I was still hesitating, wondering how much control over his imagination we should try to exert.

I mulled it over for a couple of days, and then today, a few hours before Sasha was scheduled to come over, I laid down the law. He could play by different rules at school or at friends’ houses, but there would be no pretend shooting at home. I asked if he understood and he said yes in a neutral tone. And even though I was coming down on the opposite side this time, I still felt wrong. I think when it comes down to a choice between seeing a weapon, no matter how roughly improvised, in his hands or dictating what he can and cannot pretend, nothing is ever going to feel right.