I’m not entirely sure how my son ended up with over a dozen nerf guns.
When he was born, I swore that we would be a weapon-free household. We would buck the stereotypes of masculine play. Surely it was a social construct and nothing more that caused boys to be wild and reckless and inexorably drawn to pretend warfare.
As with so many parental aspirations, the line in the sand that I had drawn when he was born slowly eroded under the realities of motherhood. Just as my zealous ban on all things Disney princess crumbled and my daughters gleefully paraded through the house dressed as Rapunzel and Cinderella, my son’s favorite playtime activity is to shoot things with foam darts. Bullseyes, stuffed animals, siblings. Really, any target will do.
I hate guns. That’s not poetic license or artistic hyperbole. I am that crazed liberal that 2nd Amendment defenders dream of in their darkest nightmares. If I were suddenly granted magical powers, the first snap of my fingers would make handguns disappear from every civilian household in America. I read the never-ending flow of news stories about children who are accidentally shot each year with equal parts fury, heartbreak, and terror, recognizing that we live in a firearm-friendly state where the overarching norms of gun ownership do not align with my values.
And so, I attempted to ban guns entirely. No shooter video games. No nerf guns, bb guns, cap guns, or even squirt guns. Not that this meant there were no imaginary gun battles in our home. Ever resourceful, my young son could turn anything into a ‘gun.’ Remote controls, bananas, or just his own fingers all became potential weapons for subduing monsters, dragons, and supervillains.
My son was about four when he asked for his first nerf gun. His friends had them and he wanted one, too.
I said no.
He asked again. Then again. Then again. A compromise was reached in the form of a nerf bow and arrow. Somehow this felt better, safer, gentler, to me. The bow and arrow was fun. It whistles when it shoots and there’s an undeniable satisfaction to be found in pulling the rubberized string back and letting fly.
It wasn’t enough. It never is! Once the door was open a crack, it became harder and harder to articulate the difference between the toys he had and the toys he wanted. Is there really a difference between a nerf crossbow and a nerf pistol? Why was I being so incredibly neurotic about this? What was I afraid of?
I took some deep breaths, did some research (pretend play with toy guns is not, in fact, a predictor for later violence in life – thank goodness), and relaxed my policies. He charged in with gusto and now you can find rogue nerf darts strewn all over our house and a veritable foam armory in his bedroom.
I’ve become more comfortable with the pretend shootouts waged with his friends, as I see them practicing important social skills like sharing, collaboration, communication, and consent. It’s a firm rule that you don’t shoot anyone who hasn’t agreed to play and that a playmate can change their mind at any time, bringing the firefight to an immediate halt.
The other night, my son asked me to play nerf guns with him before bedtime. He was prepared for me to refuse – I could see it in his eyes – but I said yes. We had a blast. We each erected a bunker on opposite sides of his bedroom. He hunkered down behind the end of his bed, while I blockaded myself behind a laundry basket and several beanbag chairs. We fired indiscriminately, bouncing darts off the walls, ceiling, and furniture but rarely hitting each other.
Smack talk rained, with shouts of – “Vengeance shall me mine!” – leveled across the room. We negotiated cease-fires to collect the darts, broke the cease-fires, and eventually collapsed onto the floor in a truce, sweaty and laughing. As we caught our breath, my son told me about his day and about the book he’s been reading. It felt good. It felt like connection with this beautiful, insightful, impulsive child who sometimes feels like a visitor from a foreign galaxy.
I still hate guns. Real guns. The ones designed to kill people as their primary function. There’s no place for those in my world. But brightly-colored plastic weaponry with squishy orange ammunition? Okay, maybe those can stay. My son and I will see you on the battlefield.