How much gun talk is normal for kids?

Friends, here is my parenting column this week:

A few weeks ago, I called a friend of mine who has four sons.

I was desperate for advice about an issue I never expected to come up in our house: Guns. More specifically, a 5-year-old son who has begun making comments about shooting and killing and making things dead. Followed by, “Mom, what does dead mean?”

“It means something doesn’t grow anymore, like a flower,” I replied, trying to steer the conversation away from gory yet still recognize the life cycle.

We’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had to address death in our house just yet – all seven grandparents are still alive, and our family dog is entering old age but not hospice just yet. My husband doesn’t hunt.

And we haven’t really had to address guns or violence – though I knew that day would come. Philip and I have talked about how we’ll ask other parents if they have guns and how they are stored when our kids are old enough for solo playdates.

We’ve kept our home as cheery as possible the past few years, trying to protect the sweet innocence of Jack, 5, and Viv, 2. We’re careful with media – no TV in the background when the kids are awake, and a radio tuned to the oldies station.

And even the shows and movies we let the kids watch are mellow – no superheroes, no Transformers, not even Scooby-Doo, which I found terrifying as a kid. We stick to Leap Frog shows about the alphabet, Bob the Builder and Jake and the Neverland Pirates.

The worst that happens is Captain Hook gets foiled, not shot.

Jack has a Batman costume, but he’s never watched a Batman show and I won’t even let him get the Batman books from the library. When he did get one, I changed the entire story. We aren’t big into “bad guys’ in our house, since most people are good people. And stranger danger is real, but so is the need sometimes ask a stranger for help. I don’t want my kids to be terrified the neighbor will molest or kill them if they need help or god forbid, something happens to me when I’m home with them.

We aren’t alarmists.

But the rest of the world is, a bit.

So I didn’t really know what to do when Jack’s preschool teacher pulled me aside this week to say he had been saying violent things at school. At home, we had talked about how those words are unkind, and we don’t talk that way. And I chalked it up to exploring language. He’s not a violent kid, we aren’t violent parents, and my friend with the four sons assured me it’s a fairly normal part of development.

That isn’t to say we ignore it – but we also tried not to give it too much attention. A mistake we made with the word “stupid,” which just made it even more enticing for Jack and Viv to say when we tried to ban it. Now I just tell them they can’t say it to me, but if they want to call each other stupid, and laugh about it, that’s up to them.

But this week, I had visions of Jack starting kindergarten next year and his entire elementary school going into lock-down because he said he was going to shoot someone.

Maybe that sounds dramatic, but I’ve read ridiculous news stories of kids expelled for drawing pictures of cartoon bombs or making statements just like the ones Jack made. Many of the stories are highlighted on a site I like to read called Free-Range Kids, which talks about how overprotective parents generally are and how quick folks are to jump to conclusions that every child is capable of extreme violence for saying something like, “you’re dead now.”

It feels insensitive to even say that – in light of yet another school shooting this week, and close to a year after Sandy Hook. But those events are still rare. Rarer than a child making a shocking statement for just that – shock value.

But that’s the world we’re in, and I have to figure out a way to make Jack understand that those are words we just don’t say. I’ve told him to tell his little friend at school – the one who also got in trouble for that kind of talk – that “we don’t talk that way.” And I wish I knew that mom a bit better, so we could punish the kids together. I don’t know who is instigating it, but I’ll punish Jack for participating at all.

I have three sisters, so I’m not sure how much of this is boys will be boys. My sister tells me her sons turned Legos into guns for a while, even though she has a similar philosophy to me.

Philip sat down with Jack last night to talk about it. And we talked some more at bedtime. We’ll keep talking about it every day, I guess. Because when it comes down to it, we’ll be talking about difficult subjects for a long time with them, and I want them to know that, as a family, we can talk about anything. Together.

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3 Responses to How much gun talk is normal for kids?

  1. johanna says:

    I would talk to the teacher about how they deal with it. I mean, Jack is hardly the first little boy who’s wanted to play “gun” games, so I bet they have a philosophy and strategy. Seb has started to get really excited about “shooter guns”, without really understanding the consequences. His teacher was really helpful for us in working through it, since we’re pretty anti-gun in our family. She said that they don’t ban gun play, since otherwise the kids find ways to do it secretly and that gives it power and becomes something they can’t manage. Instead, they have specific rules around it, for example, you have to ask before you play guns, and everyone has to want to play. So at home now, when Seb is going “bang-bang”, I tell him that I don’t like playing shooter games so he has to find a way to do it that doesn’t involve me (or neighbors, etc). At first I got a lot of “why” but now it’s just pretty accepted, and he lays off if I ask him, for example, “did you ask [neighbor] if he wanted to play shooting games”.

    • They put them in time out. He has two teachers. The morning one does time out and doesn’t allow any talk like that. The afternoon one has a private talk with the child. Time out has never really worked with Jack.

      I like your idea – thanks for the advice.

  2. Karen says:

    We have had guns in our home since before our 3 boys were born and now are adults. They were taught the rules of safe gun handling and hunting before they even took their gun safety courses. At age 5-6 they could take them apart, clean them and put them back together again…House Rules…you do not touch a gun when we are not at home. They also were not allowed friends in the house if we were not at home. When kids are not taught and do not know anything about guns that is when the couriosity factor sets in and most of these accidental shootings happen. I see the side of parents that are so against guns, but nowadays these kids need to know what can happen. Maybe find a gun safety instructor who knows how to talk to childred about guns, when you feel the time is right.

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