When my son was 3 he did something incredibly cute. That is what my wife and I thought at least. We were all playing in the basement enjoying a Saturday. He began to collect all of the stuffed animals and line them up a long the wall. When they were all arranged in their places he proceeded to make his finger into the shape of a gun and shoot each one “firing squad style”. We had no real or play guns in the house, He had never played nor seen a first person shooter video game, and we were not in the habit of allowing him to watch violent movies. So, being young parents that thought their child was the cutest we played along.
A few days later my wife was at a moms group and told what she thought was the humorous story of a young boys vivid imagination. A number of the moms in the group responded with knowing looks that said, “Ahh my sons have done similar things.” One mom however was appalled. She did not find the story funny, let a lone cute and she did not believe that boys should be pretending in such ways.
My wife of course came home and told me of her experience. We discussed the concerns raised by this mom as well as some thoughts we had about aggression in boys. We wanted him to be kind and to learn to be responsible with guns. In the years following we have never purchased any toy guns for our boys. We have not discouraged the inevitable peanut butter sandwich gun, or the stick made to look like a rifle, but we have never played war….until two weeks ago. That is when I discovered the 2008 Article “Gun Play” by Jay Mechling in which he makes the argument that, “against the intuition of vast numbers of parents and other adults, play with guns is not only not bad for boys but actually has some benefits.”
Mechling describes the benefits of a “play frame” and surprisingly, pretending to die.
The “play frame” is a concept developed by Researcher Gregory Bateson in his article, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy”. The theory proposes that when in play it is understood by all the players that actions, words, and signals that occur within this context do not have the same meaning as they would outside of the play context. So, a boy can run by his best friend while playing cops and robbers and yell, “I am going to shoot you dead” both understanding that they are friends and have no intention of hurting one another. I see this quite regularly with my sons when we wrestle. They speak in faux deep voices and make faces of anger and aggression, that have a meaning of I am strong, and I am powerful. Although very physical in nature it is not a truly aggressive stance towards me. The benefit of this play is learning the difference between real life and fantasy.
Mechling also describes the benefits of pretending to die. He believes (and I agree) that pretending to die is a way for children to work through the real fears they have about death, injury, and being abandoned. Pretending to die and coming back to life allows children to act out over and over again the real life drama of being protected by someone more powerful than they. When our boys pretend to die and we play sadness, hurt, and loss I am teaching them about how much they mean to us. When they pretend to die and we run to tend their wounds they learn that we will keep them safe.
I had another epic gun battle with my boys today. We fought against the bad guys lurking in our living room. Upon returning to the kitchen after the war (where mom was making lunch) we marched in a ticker tape parade. I pinned pretend medals of honor on all three of them. I looked them in the eye and said, “for your honor, courage, and bravery in the fight against bad guys. “