Common Wisdom: Ropes and Swords and Guns

It was the third in a lengthening chain of cold lousy winter days, and my three-year-old was bouncing off the walls with frustrated energy. So I packed him and his one-year-old sister into the car and headed for the local mall. Not to shop — even when cabin fever hasn’t turned my son into a wild man, shopping with the kids is one of those trials that knock off a good many years in Purgatory. But at the center of our mall is a carpeted area where moms and dads let their kids run round and round before bringing them into just one more store.

Today we didn’t last long. Peter was in great spirits, but he really was jumping with energy, and in between chasing games he began pushing a little boy. The boy’s dad was looking interventionist, so after one futile warning, I carted my son off. I attempted a talk on Why Pushing Is a Bad Thing. Kids don’t like to be pushed, I told Peter. They won’t want to play with you if you push them. Peter answered me in very reasonable tones: “But Mommy, be serious. That’s what boys do.”

I really pity progressive parents who have boys, because even traditional types like me often have problems nowadays working out how they feel about the aggressive, busting-out-all-over quality of the young male. At the age of 18 months Peter saw five minutes of a cowboy movie and the following day he picked up a stick, aimed it at an imaginary target, and said, “Shoot! Shoot!” Soon after, a four-year-old proudly showed him his gun. On our next trip to the supermarket, Peter spotted his heart’s desire in the toy aisle, and began shouting, “I want a gun.”

Why should this have embarrassed me so? As a child I played toy soldiers with an older brother; played cops and robbers and war games with a neighborhood full of boys. My father took us to lots of cowboy movies (my grandmother took care of Disney), and Westerns and World War II were always on TV.

Besides, I knew the way these games worked in a child’s mind: you wanted to win, you were fighting, but you weren’t thinking about killing or even hurting (that was a different kind of fighting, springing up suddenly on schoolyard playgrounds).

What muddied the waters was the rather violent pacifism of the Sixties. The Age of Aquarius reached full swing as I was entering adolescence. The teachers at my Catholic school were enthusiastic participants. We had Joan Baez and Gandhi at Masses, we talked endlessly (at 12 and 13 years of age) about the merits of civil disobedience, draft-dodging, Canada versus jail. We discussed Alice’s Restaurant in religion class. In church we sang “Give Peace a Chance” and “Gonna lay down my swore and shield, / Down by the riverside.” And now, almost twenty years later, my son recites this litany to ward off evil spirits: “Good guys fight bad guys with swords and ropes and guns.”

Suddenly, I feel part of an eccentric Lost Generation, wedged between John Wayne and Rambo. Theoretically, I believe there are causes worth fighting for, worth dying for. Politically, I can identify present-day examples. Historically, I once shot bad guys with the best of them. Still, my Age of Aquarius ID card has had its effect, at least in making me imagine, nonsensically, against all the evidence, that all those other people watching my son in the supermarket or the toy store or the playground must be recoiling in horror or plotting to remove Peter from my evil influence.

Of course, childrearing books don’t do much to counteract these fears. Most of the authors are sensible enough to admit that teaching your child to fly would probably be less taxing than teaching him not to play with guns. But they generally come to this conclusion uneasily, reluctantly, with advice on limiting the imaginary carnage or insinuating lessons on the realities of war and the need for a nuclear-free world. In a way it is a bit unfair to quote from Dr. Spock, since his pacifist pedigree is unequivocal; nevertheless, he expresses forthrightly the doubts many of the others seem to feel: “If I had a three- or four-year-old son who asked me to buy him a gun, I’d tell him — with a friendly smile, not a scowl — that I don’t want to give him a gun for even pretend shooting because there is too much meanness and killing in the world, that we must all learn how to get along in a friendly way together. I’d ask him if he didn’t want some other present instead.”

It’s hard to square such high-voltage angst with my memories of my own play, or with my observations of a child’s struggles to manage his aggressiveness and anger and fearfulness, his need to have unadulterated good guys and bad guys, his need to have good guys win. Moral victories and martyrdoms make up one pole of the Christian ideal of heroism. Defending the innocent and doing battle with evil make up the other. Everybody needs to see bad guys get what’s coming to them at times.

Most of the childrearing books recognize this psychological need in children. But their authors can’t connect the child’s deeply important games with the adult enterprise of Roland or of the heroes of the Iliad. They — and my generation, perhaps — seem to have lost the key to understanding that heroic ideal. If we try to translate it into any kind of time or cause we know, it seems disturbing, alien, unsettling. We have succeeded too well in “understanding” the warrior as a case of arrested development — the terrible twos prolonged into one’s twenties.

So I’m left with a fairly straightforward understanding of what I think about toy guns and GI Joes, but with very mixed feelings. Heaven knows what world Peter will grow up into. But, barring the imminent arrival of the second coming, it is likely to be one equipped with “ropes and swords and guns.” I hope Peter is on the side of the angels (St. Michael is sure to be his favorite). And I hope I can stand it.

  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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