I woke up this morning to my nearly 5-year-old son, his big blue eyes close to mine, saying "Mama! Let's play!" Somehow, I dragged myself to the living room where he had set up dinosaurs. He told me the rules: "My dinosaurs have superpowers and yours don't. Mine find yours and then kill them with their power!" That woke me up.
I wondered if I should say something to him about killing -- again. I tried to redirect the violence in the play by having my dinosaurs offer friendship and joint living in a cave. He didn't bite. "No! they are not friends! OK mama? OK?" "OK," I said, in resignation. Because at that moment, it felt like I had lost that battle.
What happened to my gentle little boy who would cradle his dolls if they happened to fall on the ground? Where is the boy who would never consider the possibility of intentionally hurting another? And where did this one, who pretends to shoot others, come from? "My son will never do that," I used to say.
As usual, parenting is humbling.
Guns first showed up last year. Amidst his love affair with Mary Poppins and Annie, he also started asking about weapons. He wanted me to cut a gun out of cardboard so he could take it to school. Mortified, I imagined his teachers' reactions when they saw it.
We talked about how guns are best used for protection, only by those whose job it is to protect -- the police, the army. I told myself that he was interested in guns in the same way he was interested in a policeman's pad, handcuffs and hat -- fun tools of the trade.
Eventually, he didn't accept my explanation and started asking questions I didn't have the answers to. And they were questions that I ask myself all the time. Why would we need protection? From whom? Does protecting mean hurting someone else?
As a therapist, I am fully aware of a child's need to use play as a way to experience anxiety in a non-threatening situation. Through play, children can express what they find confusing, exciting and overwhelming about the world.
As a mom, it's not that simple. A therapist is trained to put her own issues aside, or to use them in a way that will benefit the patient. But as a mom, my ego is wrapped up in my son. His behavior often feels like a reflection of who I am and how I am perceived. I know this feeling is detrimental, but it is sometimes hard to shake.
My own associations to guns and violence are not the same as my son's. At just the mention of guns, I feel a wave of sadness and despondence. I think about school shootings, accidental shootings in homes with guns, and wars.
My son's interest in guns has to do with his developmental stage as a kid and as a boy. He is becoming more aware of his own agency. He experiments with being defiant. "You are not a good mama!" he says, when he is upset at me. "I hate this food!" he says, about dishes he loved a day earlier. Then he looks up at me with red cheeks to see if he has crossed the line, wanting to make sure that there is indeed a line.
He divides the world into black/white, good/bad, yes/no, perhaps as a way to simplify a world that he is beginning to sense is not so simple.
He is becoming more aware of those around him and how their actions reflect on him. He sees fellow students who are older and more competent than he is in certain areas and feels disempowered, just by their presence.
That's why he loves superheroes. Playing games with a clear bad guy to defeat --and a clear good guy who usually has a little extra power born out of goodness -- makes him feel safe again. I get that. It is the preoccupation with weapons and violence that stops me in my tracks. I struggle with whether his play stems from the desire to HURT another, or OVERPOWER another.
So, what do I do?
When I can I play with him, hoping that if he acts out the dynamics of good and bad, powerful and weak, healthy and injured, he is releasing some of his anxiety.
On some days I allow him to defeat me with his powerful dinosaurs. I let him make up the rules and I pretend to be scared of his strength. He becomes exhilarated and later seems to be much better company during the dinner/bath marathon.
On other days I fight back, unable to put my own sense of powerlessness aside. My army people find a place to hide, my dinosaurs demonstrate their own strength and I try to outsmart him (we all know it is impossible to outsmart a kid).
On my worst days I freeze up. He mentions guns and I wonder where I went wrong. I feel as though the future is bleak and full of pain and war, and I couldn't do anything to help, not even raise a mensch. In those moments, I don't allow him to be him.
I talk to him about the difference between play and real life. I tell him that, in real life, guns and weapons can hurt people to the point of death. We talk about what it means not to be living anymore.
This afternoon we sat down to play again. I was prepared to let him express his every desire and overpower me in whatever way he chose, even if it scared me. This time, he told me that our dinosaurs were cleaning up with sponges connected to the bottom of their feet. No violence, no drama. I was ridiculously disappointed, because for a moment, I thought I had figured out a tiny little aspect of parenting my son.
And then the doozy hit at dinner. What does he want for his fifth birthday? A light saber! Lego Chima! Sword! Stay calm. He needs to play it out to understand it, and he needs to play with someone he feels safe with.
Little does he know that this playing partner is still trying to work it all out herself, and sometimes feels just as terrified and confused as he does.