A few months ago, on one of my weekly daily trips to Target, I got lured to the toy aisle by Dash who wanted to “just look” for ideas for his upcoming birthday. We started in the action figure aisle, made our way to Matchbox cars and finally turned a corner to land in the gun aisle–nerf guns and laser guns, to be exact–but enough of them to take up an entire four-shelf stretch. There were guns of all sizes–little ones that could fit in your pocket all the way up to guns that took up an entire arms span. There were guns with flashing lights and sound effects, guns with motorized blasters for foam darts, guns with impressive sounding features like “speed load” and “surge fire.” Dash’s eyes grew huge as he took in the wall of guns, and the search for a birthday present was suddenly over.
“Gun!” he squealed. “I want a gun! A really big gun! I want a gun, Mom! I want a gun!” There’s nothing like a 5-year-old screaming “I WANT A GUN!” so loud in Target that people in the produce aisle no doubt heard him. And as funny as it was, I couldn’t help but feel this tinge of discomfort. I knew it wasn’t wrong for him to want a nerf gun, but there was something about standing in an aisle full of nothing more than play guns, hearing my kid yell “GUN! I WANT A GUN!” that made me dig into that discomfort and what I needed to do about it. I talked to my friend Amy about it later because, not only does she have three boys (not that it’s limited to boys), but she also offers the most thoughtful advice when it comes to my big questions in parenting.
Amy’s back today with her husband Jeffrey, a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience working with children and families, to tackle the gun question in our blog series of parenting discussions with them. If you missed the first two posts, you can find their response to school lockdown drill concerns here and last week’s weight and body image discussion here. Amy and Jeffrey’s parenting book–about the six core needs every child has and every parent can meet–publishes next year (cannot WAIT!). Until then, I’m honored to share their wisdom and heart in this space.
My 5-year-old son’s birthday is coming up and all he wants is a nerf gun. He talks about it constantly, begging for it, but I feel torn about buying him a toy gun. I don’t want to disappoint him on his birthday, though. Help!
Dear Conflicted, one of the most important things we can do as parents is learn to recognize and get comfortable with the feeling of tension you describe in your question. Because you’re a human and your son is his own person, too, you’ll feel this tension over and over again as he grows. Right now he’s asking for a nerf gun, and in the years to come he’ll want and ask for many other things you won’t be sure about and perhaps haven’t even considered. So when what he wants pulls you in a direction you’re not comfortable with, resist rushing to a decision. Instead, notice the pulling and get curious about it. Get still and listen to what the tension wants to show you. The discomfort is an invitation to learn more about your child and yourself, and it can to lead you somewhere important.
Your first task is to get inside your little one’s mind. What does he picture happening if your answer is yes and he gets the gun? And where is his ask coming from? Do other friends or kids he sees have nerf guns? Does he simply want to join in the play? Has he been captivated by cool commercials or flashy store displays? Think through whether the toy is something he truly wants or something that is being sold to him. It’s an important distinction.
Your second task is to get inside your own mind. What are you afraid might happen if you say yes? Be honest and specific about your fears. Are you worried that giving your son a nerf gun will encourage him to be violent? Do you have a history or experiences that would make pretend gun play in your home uncomfortable for you? Are you fearful about what other parents will think of you if they see your child with a play weapon? Are you scared or sad to give up the dream of the child you pictured raising, the one who was occupied for hours with homemade toys and wooden blocks? (Been there.) Say your fears out loud and listen to how they sound. Some will ring true, and some may lose their power when you examine them in the light.
If your child’s ask seems authentic and persists over time, but some of your fears also remain, reach out to others for help. There is wisdom in the village. Talk to other parents to find out what decisions they’ve made about this same issue. Have they shared your fears? And if so, what boundaries or rules did they set up around play guns that helped to ease some of their concerns?
We want our “yeses” to be wholehearted, because our children have a hard time separating our attitudes towards the things we let them have and do and our attitudes towards them. So if your fears are specific and lingering after you’ve examined them, talk to your son before you make your final decision. Using simple language, try to figure out if he is mature enough to accept the boundaries you’ll need to set around the toy. If it seems like your rules will be too difficult for him, then it may be time to wait. We set our relationships up for shame, resentment and future conflict if saying yes in the moment will lead to power struggles down the road.
Finally, remember that any answer of yes, no, or maybe-but-not-yet is not the end of the world. Generations of children have survived not getting what they wanted for their birthdays, just as generations of parents have grown by supporting their children in interests that didn’t match their own. Whatever you decide, you’ll both get through this decision. Letting the tension push you to wonder about your son and his world in new ways may teach you important things about yourself, too.
You can connect more with the Dr. Jeffrey Olrick and Amy Olrick on their site, Growing Connected, and follow them on Instagram @growingconnected or Facebook. If you have a parenting question or issue you’d like Amy and Jeffrey to tackle, feel free to leave it in the comments. You can also sign up for their newsletter where they share more questions, answers and encouragement for any parent seeking more connection with their kids.
Have some thoughts and insights about toy guns? I’d love to hear them! Or, if you have a parenting question you’d like Amy and Jeffrey to tackle here in the coming weeks, please share in the comments!