There is a great debate amongst the educators and parents I present to about children playing with guns. In fact, it may be the hottest of all debates (even more than whether to allow children to go up slides!). Does playing with guns support or hinder child development? More so, how might a child playing with guns today impact society tomorrow?
As a boy, I remember happily playing with guns. Whether it was with my cork gun shooting cans in my backyard or playing war with plastic guns with my friends, I only have good memories. Gunplay was a means of using my imagination, connecting with others, and being in nature. Looking back now, however, I view those times from mature hindsight, with a depth that sees beneath shiny, plastic surfaces.
I can safely assert that in my naïve days of gunplay I was making the use of guns and even killing okay. So were my and my friends’ parents. It was the general consensus on the streets, and in the Euro-western world, that children pretending to kill each other with guns was perfectly acceptable.
The normalization of guns and violence
Through the growing field of neuroscience, we know that when people imagine making new, healthy choices, the imagining alone builds new neural pathways; this, despite any concrete action steps they may take. What we imagine / think, we become. Such is the power of the mind.
Understanding this, I must state clearly that I don’t believe it behooves children and our society at large to continue supporting gunplay in our neighbourhoods, for it perpetuates a mental map that normalizes our culture of guns and systemic violence. From game hunting, to gun trade shows, blood-splattering video games, the glorification of shootings on movie screens and television shows, we have, for centuries, been desensitized to violence, and specifically gun violence. We have normalized it. And the consequences are increasingly evident.
What else have we normalized that we are only now questioning? How animals are tortured into “food” in industrial agriculture; how women are sexually assaulted by men in power; how children are taught developmentally inappropriate curriculum and in insensitive ways; how we greedily exploit the earth for resources; the so-called “war on drugs”; how we perceive cannabis as a “bad drug” (versus a powerful medicinal herb); how we tolerate the legal distribution of guns on our city streets?
Normal is powerful and destructive if blindly unquestioned. Worldviews are seen from, not through. We don’t know any different until one day we wake up and say, “Hmmm, wait a second! That’s harmful! That’s violent! This cannot continue!”
And it often takes violence that impacts us directly for us to wake up to the violence of the world, and how pervasive and widely accepted it is. That’s often when purpose is born.
We must therefore question what is normal more than ever. And we are. But I ask you to consider this within the context of gun use with our children.
Why the sword?
And so here is my suggestion. If your children want to play with a gun, gently take the gun out of their hand and immediately replace it with a sword. Give them something new to play with rather than simply taking something away. Show your excitement in this gift and that you want to play with them. Be sure to have your own sword to play with in hand. Show it to them. And then tell your child why you have done this. Why the sword?
Here are three reasons to speak to (and use whatever language works for you and the child):
First, we must remember that the sword is more than just a weapon; it is also deeply rooted in magic, myth and legend. Whether that be the story of King Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the rock to announce his nobility, or the flaming sword mentioned in the Bible and other legends, the sword is firmly placed in the old stories that teach us lessons about life.
In Welsh lore, for instance, Dyrnwyn is the sword belonging to Rhydderch Hael. When wielded from a sense of generous spirit, the sword would ablaze. For those who wished to use it for sinister purposes, however, it would burn them. The use of the sword demanded integrity and right mind, otherwise it would harm he or she that grasped it. In Ephesians 6:17 of the Bible, it states, “And take The Helmet Of Salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The tongue has long been considered our sword which, when aligned with the will of God, serves, and when limited to the will of man, hurts.
Indeed, if we look carefully, we’ll see the sword rooted in ancient archetypal patterns embedded in the cosmos. It has its roots in something deeper than the human invention of violence, something noble, ceremonial and wise. I can’t say the same thing about guns.
Second, swords demand much more honour than guns. Opponents stand face-to-face. One cannot hide a hundred yards away behind a bush and kill his opponent as you do with a gun. In that, swords demand more courage as well, more bravery, more heart. You must face your adversary head on, not deal with them surreptitiously, or behind their back.
How much in our society do we lack the courage to step into the fire of conflict head on? How much do we avoid conflict and talk behind people’s back?
Third, a sword is used as a metaphor for discernment; hence, sword of discernment. With the help of our blade, we narrow our focus onto where we begin and end, on what is true for us, what feels intuitively right. We draw the line between ourselves and others, thereby setting boundaries and saying No when needed.
The visual of a sword at our side is helpful in knowing we can draw upon it anytime for protecting ourselves, not to hurt others with, but to keep ourselves safe and centred. Without the sword of discernment, we are likely to let others take advantage of us and use us for their purposes.
By contrast, guns are used primarily in the context of attacking others. That was their purpose of play when we used them as children. “Ataaaack!” we’d scream! But how much did we deliberately use them for defence, for more noble purposes? It was more about conquering than protecting. There was little honour and a lot of killing.
Is this the message we want to give children? Steepening the colonial mindset?
The need for guidance
With the help of a wise adult, a child can see that a sword is to be used from a place of honour, just as the great martial arts emphasize honour and respect in how students should use their craft. A wise Aikido or Karate teacher will not only teach the movements of attack and defence, but the wisdom and care in using those skills—the discernment needed.
Children need this kind of mentorship when you replace their gun with a sword, to understand what the sword symbolizes and how to use it. Children love to know why! Perhaps you may want to share some old stories with the child involving swords and to discuss how the sword was being used, for what purpose, so the child can understand the responsibilities and consequences involved.
Most importantly, we do not want to take away the spirit of play from the child as he or she gets acquainted with the sword. So whatever guidance is given must honour the child’s need to explore and have fun. It’s a balance that every parent struggles with between flow and structure. The child will need both freedom to learn on their own and guidance if they are to understand their sword and wield it with heart and responsibility.
The sword within
Finally, each child must learn that the sword, ultimately, lies within, and that it is always there at their side when needed. It is not something to be grasped all the time, for that would only have the child grow up living defended, overly protected and on alert. Rather, for the sake of their wellbeing, each child must learn that the sword needs to be released after use, placed back in its imaginary sheath, close by if needed to protect and discern with.
As it stands, our Euro-western world is made up of vast amounts of people tightly gripping their sword, and wielding it unconsciously and harmfully. They were hurt enough in their childhood to live on guard, anxious, defended, and wanting to hurt others. (The numbers for children today are staggering. In the UK, as of 2017, children receiving therapy for anxiety has risen by 60 percent in two years.) These grown men and women had no one to reveal their indwelling sword to them, let alone the proper guidance on how to wield it—how to speak up, say No, discern, trust their intuition, act with faith and integrity—, to protect themselves and live with honour. They did not have any elders, mentors or rights of passage guiding them into manhood or womanhood where they learn to confidently hold their sword at their side and use it when needed.
And when it’s guns these immature, anxious, defended, hurt adults grasp, violence erupts.
It’s mentored boys and girls turning into honourable men and women with swords at their sides that society needs. So give your children a sword to play with. Teach them its merit, its responsibility, its deeper meaning and function. Teach them to live and act from their heart while skilful with their tongue so that they grow up being integral, contributing men and women of distinction in our communities.
* * *
Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults