By Sharon Holbrook
Twice in the last couple of weeks we’ve had families over—families, it so happens, that each have a four-year-old boy. Each time, the boy was captivated by my 12-year-old son’s Nerf gun collection. Each time, the parents cringed, trying to distract their son from the toy weapons.
I get it. That used to be me. It still is. I think.
My friends and I would keep our little guys away from guns and gunplay as much as we could. We knew what everyone said, that even without toy guns, boys will turn their finger or a stick into a gun anyway. Nevertheless, we tried to raise pacifists, whatever that meant. But, it did seem to be true—even without sanctioned gunplay, we were still trying to tamp down roughhousing and (to our eyes) aimlessly aggressive play.
Back then, around 2010 or so, BPA was near the top of the parent worry list. BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical in plastic sippy cups and snack containers that promised to ruin our children’s health.
“Good news!” I told my friend, the mother of four boys. “I read about a new study. It says that boys who have been harmed by BPA show lower testosterone levels and lower levels of aggressive play!”
She didn’t think this was good news.
Somehow, I had taken it that way, though. If a “damaged” little boy showed less aggression, then maybe it was healthy and normal after all for our sons to show some? Maybe we shouldn’t worry that something was wrong with our boys—and instead simply see it as part of our job to channel that boisterous energy?
Last week—back here in 2018—there was another school shooting. It was my sixth grader who told me about it, because he happened to see it pop up in notifications on his trombone teacher’s iPad when the teacher was pulling up a metronome app. Sadly, my kid didn’t seem surprised by the tragedy.
He is used to this. He has huddled in closets for lockdown drills since he was in preschool. “Do you want to be a snail today, or a turtle?” his teachers would ask. “Let’s pretend. And we have to be very, very quiet.”
We went home from that trombone lesson without much discussion—younger sisters were in the car and, really, what else was there to say that wouldn’t be alarming or hopeless?
As soon as we walked in the door, my son went off to play Fortnite, which is, yes, a shooting video game. It felt particularly unsettling on this day. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, or a weak parent. Maybe I am both. One thing’s for sure: I’m still trying to figure this all out.
“Let’s look at Common Sense Media,” I had said when my son had asked to buy the game. (I look at Common Sense Media like my mother used to look at movie reviews in her Catholic newspaper. “What do the bishops say?” Mom would say before giving me the green or red light for a movie.)
So, Fortnite: 4/5 for positive messages, no sex, and 3/5 for violence: “Action persistent in matches, especially when defending objectives from waves of incoming enemies. No blood; defeated enemies simply vanish. Some creepy imagery, such as Husks wearing human hosts like a hoodie.” Ugh, I said. Age 13, Common Sense said, and my kid is almost 13. “My friends all have it,” he claimed.
Wary of creating forbidden fruit, I said okay. I also know that it is time to begin handing over some of this kind of decision-making to him, to help him think critically about how he spends his time and what media he uses. And yet, he knows that I hate it. He knows that we abhor violence and gunplay in our house. “Don’t you think,” I said to him that day, “that it’s weird to be playing a shooting game right after this school shooting. Or am I overreacting?”
“Yes, Mom,” he said, “I think that’s overreacting.”
I can’t help but be reminded of when he was a little boy. I would express my dismay at playing guns and shooting. “Mommy,” he would say as if I were the small child in the room, “it’s just pretend.”
If it is normal for boys (or at least my boy) to crave feelings of power—and it seems he does, in a way I don’t see in my daughters—then shouldn’t I avoid shaming him, making him feel there is something wrong with this desire? Because, in fact, besides this annoying pretend play, he is an extremely gentle boy. I don’t actually worry that he will grow up to be violent. I suppose what worries me more are the toxic, everyday ways that aggression, especially masculine aggression, can play out and how that affects every one of us.
I’m still figuring out just where that leaves us. For now, it means I try to impart the idea of “gentle strength” whenever I can. That means giving him more power, more pride, and more responsibility in as many positive ways as possible.
I need your help. Can you vacuum the car?
Soon, you will be the strongest person in our house. (Dad has a back problem.)
Will you please push Great Grandma’s wheelchair?
The bigger and stronger you get, the more gentle you have to become.
The cat doesn’t like that. See what he’s saying with his body?
I’m counting on you to babysit tonight. You are in charge if there is an emergency.
Please help me carry this.
Here is how you scrub the toilet (cook the tacos, make the bed, run the washer).
Your sister said no. If you’re having fun and she’s upset, that’s teasing.
Hold this door for me, please.
It means, too, that I let him try dangerous things. He can use the stove and knives, and he knows they have consequences if they are handled poorly. A couple of years ago, I let him shoot a BB gun when we were at Cub Scout camp and, for the first time in my life, I shot a gun, too. We both listened carefully to the very serious instructions about gun safety. (Maybe it’s not all bad to have to hear the equivalent of “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”)
There’s no gore in Fortnite, as my husband pointed out. But is that really better? Is it preferable to play with guns and not see any real danger in doing so? I don’t want him to play gory games, either, that’s for sure. The reality, however, is that my 12-year-old still lives in a world of superhero movies, adventure books, Nerf guns—and yes, one non-gory-but-still-unsettling video game.
To the parents of our four-year-old visitors? I’m sorry. I don’t understand the need for pretend power and aggression either. I wish it didn’t exist. But there it is in our sons, from age four to age 12. All we can hope is that the parenting decisions we make in the real world will be enough.
When she’s not fretting about video games, Sharon is a writer and the managing editor of Your Teen for Parents magazine. She lives in Cleveland with her family.