I remember the ultrasound when I found out my youngest child was a boy. Mixed in with the joy of seeing his tiny feet, the quick birdlike heartbeat, the tender curve of skull and comically unmistakable flagpole, was worry. Worry that I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy, how to connect with him. I’d grown up with a sister, and even though we spent our days in “tomboyish” pursuits, climbing trees and building forts, boys still remained inhabitants of that strange land of belching contests, football, and standing up to pee.
Of course, when he was born I was immediately and absolutely smitten, the worry fading away like milk stains in the wash. That I doubted my own capacity to connect with my child seemed absurd, laughable. Even managing his, uh, equipment seemed as natural as being the caretaker of my daughter’s. He grew, and my love and delight grew with him. As it does.
Along the way, a few things did give me pause, like the complete lack of boy outfits without giant appliquéd footballs or trains on them, or his early obsession with anything wheeled, or that whole standing up to pee situation. And even though I’d been careful to provide my daughter with trucks alongside her teacups, and a baby doll as well as Bob the Builder for my son, they both clearly exhibited the classic gendered predilections most kids do.
(I realize I’ve got stereotypes knocking around like ninepins here, and you’ll have to forgive me, but they seem unfortunately germane to even the most earnest and high-minded discussions of gender, probably because the issue of gender behavior is still so hotly debated we tiptoe around it with clumsy, politically correct generalizations and disclaimers. Strike!)
(Anyway, I am going somewhere with all this, so bear with me a minute more.)
Even his recent and sudden fascination with all things, uh, fundamental (gas, toileting, sounds, smells — you get the picture) was tolerable, predictable, even amusing, in its way, though his sister had never been held in such thrall. Long, ghastly tootlings followed by “the pumpkin did it!” are not without their innocent charms.
But the newest infatuation has me utterly thrown for a loop: guns. (And here I go running headlong into another pit of gnashing stereotypes, so let me just preface it with a stated respect for our nation’s tradition of bearing arms, how guns have figured in protection and peacekeeping, recognition of the role they play in hunting for food, and the fact that many gun owners are responsible, reasonable and upstanding members of society. That said, I have a hard time with a three year old playing “gun” when he doesn’t have the cognitive skills to really understand what they can do, the finality of them, the violence, the cruel intent with which they are too often used.)
So when he came home from preschool making that little pshew pshew sound, finger and thumb cocked as he took aim first at his sister, then at me, a little part of my parental confidence came unhinged. “Imma shoot the bad guys,” he said, in his wee, squeaky voice, blinking his long-lashed, angelic eyes in all seriousness. “You be bad guy, Mama, and I shoot you.”
“No,” I said, summoning my utmost breezy calm and nonchalance so as not to immediately set off his OOOOH NOT ALLOWED MUST COVET alarm, “we don’t shoot people.”
And thus it began.
I remember my friends with older boys lamenting the gun thing, my relief at not having to deal with it yet, as they agonized over household items turned into pistols, lunches sculpted into revolvers. Surrender to the “it’s what boys just do” meme, or stand firm. No guns in the house? Toy guns? Water pistols? Nerf armories? No pointing at people? Animals? Stuffed animals?
There are lines to be drawn, the question is where. At what point is gun play acceptable, even healthy, and at what point is it damaging or merely inappropriate? At what age should a child be made to understand what a gun really is, what it can do? Should my distaste and even horror be obvious, or squashed down so my disapproval doesn’t make guns even more alluring?
To me, 3 years is simply too young. But I can’t control what he learns from his friends (whose preferences manage to filter through the preschool’s no-fighting, no-superheroes, no-guns, pinko peacenik guidelines) or what he imagines or dreams about. I can only teach him to be responsible in his play, find movies and books and activities that are non-shootout related, and hope this fascination will eventually be replaced with something less fraught. Maybe card counting.
For now, I muddle through. I feign boredom at the mere idea of a gun, remind not to shoot at people or animals, uphold the ban on toy guns. I say guns hurt people, we don’t want to hurt anybody. I listen to my son’s assertions that he will protect me, and reply we protect ourselves with words, with smarts, with peace.
I agonize and lament and read the child psychologists. I wring my hands and wish it weren’t this way. I watch him play, shooting wrong and right into the nebulous, grey world around him, attempting to make sense of things, to find order and control in the uncertainty.
But I never wish he was someone else, a tea-swilling, tutu-rocking girl. I think back to those first ultrasound images, and that initial worry. Here is my first major disconnect, and I realize I am grateful to see now that it in no way compromises my love for him, my fierce adoration, that unbreakable cord. The gun compulsion may be somewhat opaque to me, but the boy, he is not. I’ll hang my hat on that certainty, and the hope that this, like all things, shall pass.
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