Looking back at 2013, I can tell you that my 5-year-old son really put a damper on my 21st century, gender-neutral, Bay-area parenting agenda.
Pacifism is in, but it is very hard to talk troop-withdrawal with the troops because the troops are interested in protecting and fighting and good guys and bad guys and war and guns -- LET US NOT FORGET THE GUNS. But we're not going to call them guns, we're going to call them "lasers" or "blasters" or "laser blasters" and most definitely not what they really are, but if they're "water laser blasters" then that's okay, especially when directed at a squirrel.
Also, just so no one gets the wrong impression, my son was not a soldier for Halloween. He was a Viking, which is completely different. Vikings were all about peace and love (Haight Ashbury has nothing on 9th century Iceland) -- and that is not a sword, it's a scythe of prosperity. Besides, I'm pretty sure his backup costume was John Muir, the famous naturalist and advocate of wilderness preservation.
It all comes down to a feel-good word choice, just like with the laser-blaster-not-a-gun. A "viking," "ninja" or "knight" sounds better than a "soldier." Although, let's be honest, they're all soldiers who will kill you dead, even if it's with nunchucks and not guns. Combatting the combat of little boys is a game of linguistics. Like Words With Friends, but Words With Synonyms: say anything but the word! And the kids are on to us. They know how to slip-slide right through the verbal booby-traps: LOOK MOM, A BOW-AND-ARROW NOT A GUN!
It gets tiring. I wonder if Mia Farrow -- whose life work is humanitarian aid! -- ever came back from the grocery store only to discover her children had whittled the USS Arizona out of wood and were re-enacting Japan dropping the bomb on Pearl Harbor. Did she ever contemplate going on a hunger strike to enact a less masculine approach to playtime? I become a real bitch when I go into starvation mode, so I think I would have to do something like a Reverse Dessert Strike where I eat the kid's candy to teach them a lesson.
And let's face it, mainly I'm fighting the judgement I feel from others. The visceral reaction when my son says the word "gun" at a playground, the recoiling at aggressive play, the intense discomfort at young boys engaging in the play of good vs. bad. It is the hypersensitivity of today's world pitted against the nature of little boys.
As a kid, my father regaled us with stories of growing up on a ranch, BB gun in one hand, sling shot in another, John Wayne coming over to go hunting with Grandpa. A different era, certainly, and with the next generation -- my brother -- the BB gun was traded for a little plastic gun, and off he would go to play "Cowboys and Indians." Three generations out and I have instinctively deleted "gun" from the family dictionary. The hitch is that the family dictionary and the preschool dictionary do not mesh. Like roses growing in Harlem and cockroaches surviving nuclear fallout, there's no stopping the information flow. Boys are going to stake their male identity flag in the ground, with or without your guidance.
As it turns out, my son is not interested in the game "Cowboys Who Start A Land Re-Distribution Program and Help Native Americans Plant Corn." In fact, most of the pacifistic monkey wrenches I throw in my son's games end up making me look like a complete fool. "Honey, the word 'battle' is an alteration of the Latin battualia which are fencing exercises which is almost like dancing and hey, let's have a dance party!" Surely there is a better way to toe the line between being the fool of a false reality and raising a boy without bloodlust.
To the countless queries and comments each day -- "What's war?" "I want to be a Navy SEAL." "What do fighter pilots do?" "We're gonna battle today!" "Watch this ninja spin!" -- I tell myself: He is the explorer, you are the sherpa. Guide him away from the precipices, the avalanches. Admire the views despite the altitude sickness. And when times are tough, when you can't see one foot in front of you, find yourself a sherpa -- someone who will carry that load with you. Someone who will teach you that imaginative play -- and not reality -- is the perfect place to work through the complexities of good and evil.
At the end of the day, I do a ninja spin into bed and pilot my way into the imaginary battles of a good book. At the bottom of the heap on my nightstand is Tolstoy. Whether I'll ever read him or not is irrelevant, he simply serves as a reminder, like How to Parent a Spirited Child and 1,2,3 Magic. Tolstoy did, after all, have ten children and War and Peace was probably a treatise written for his sanity -- but he is a token of all that murky, treacherous material you must wade through to get from war... to peace, two words that cannot be so simply defined by "bad" and "good."
2014 will continue to be an adventure of wading through the unknown, and fun will be had despite my unease. There will be bands of merry men and swords in stones and super spying and lots of rescuing and while my son sits next to me on his brave steed -- sword raised! ready for battle! -- I'm going to raise an olive branch.
It's time I gave peace a chance with myself as a parent.