Monday, August 16, 2010

Playing Outside of My Comfort Zone

So, you know those long lists of "When I'm a parent, I'll never...." that you fashion when you are lovingly staring down at that swollen belly full of squishy delicious baby? They are lofty lists of utopian parental ideals. I will never yell. I will never let my baby cry. I will never feed my baby inorganic food. I will never let my child watch TV before 2 years old. I will never...blah blah blah. If we all lived up to these pre-parenting expectations of ourselves, we'd be walking around in a dream of perfectly behaved children who never drive us to lose our cool, who sleep 12-hours a night from their 4th month, who breastfeed without issue, coo happily in their cribs while we shower, prepare dinner, take a moment to breathe, and who love to eat food that comes right out of our backyard garden.

But kids aren't always like that. I'm sure some are (and to those parents? eff you I'm so happy for you!!). But kids come with their own personalities, their own quirks, their own seeming agenda. And it makes those lofty utopian goals hard to uphold in the day to day, unless you're somehow perfectly matched with a child whose personalities and quirks line up with your list of perfect parenting goals. Should that happen, well then, welcome to Stepford! Enjoy your stay! The rest of us will be outside the walls of the Promised Land of Parenting, eating our words.

One of my recently recanted "When I'm a parent, I'll never..." (and I say "one" and "recently recanted" because there are others, many, recanted recently and within the past 3-4 years--I'm a big recanter when it comes to this list) is "When I'm a parent, I'll never let my kid(s) play with toy weapons."

Oy. Yes, I'm one of those people. I cringe at the idea of toy guns and toy swords. We don't hunt. We don't own guns. I have friends and family who do both, and I love them and don't judge them for it and I certainly don't think less of them. Truly. But for me? And my family? My thought has always been, just no. End of discussion. For a lot of reasons, I'm terrified of guns. I know all the arguments for gun education and the whole "guns don't kill people; people kill people." I know it. I get it. I don't dispute anyone else's right to join the NRA and hunt during open season and all of that stuff. But count me out. And my kid. Count him out, too.

This was never a problem for us and my "When I'm a parent, I'll never let my kids play with toy weapons" was working out just great! Until preschool.

See, Ethan's friends, from the age of well, birth, 'til the time he was 3.5 were, for the most part, girls. Some of them could give a good shove, or pull some serious hair, and even break some skin on a good chomp of the arm. But more often than not, what they wanted to do was throw a princess dress on Ethan and call it a day. It wasn't until very recently that they even became interested in the idea of Ethan being a Knight in Shining Armor--just toss a tutu at him, or the smallest Disney princess frock you've got lying around and voila! he's ready to go.

In preschool, though, Ethan started interacting with more boys. Which is great! Don't get me wrong. I'd sometimes fretted over the gender imbalance in Ethan's social circle--much as I loved the girls he played with and appreciated that their mellow(er) play led to fewer meltdowns (and probably fewer injuries), I worried that if Ethan didn't get a bit more rough and tumble into his social experience, he was going to be seriously shocked one day when faced with more boys, whose idea of fun was to run and wrestle and pretend to shoot each other from behind couches and rocks and the top of the play structures at the park.

During his first year of preschool, the kids were still kind of floating in that not-quite-sure-of-gender-roles mish-mosh where everyone wanted to be playing with cars and then everyone wanted to be having a tea party. And there was no "no boys allowed!" and "ew! girls!" yet. But somewhere around 4 years old, they start to get it, whether we want them to or not. Ethan still has just as many girl friends as he did before, but now they all seem to be aware that there are things boys "can't" do, or don't do. They don't hold it against each other--for example, they seem to know that boys don't wear dresses, but they'll still throw a tutu and a pair of fairy wings on Ethan and let him join in--but they know on some level that "that's what girls do."

And for the record, I'm not saying I'm thrilled with this dawning of gender role identity. I kind of liked it when boys and girls could all do the same thing in their play and no one even bothered to take note of the fact that one thing was a "girl" thing and the other was a "boy" thing. But, it is what it is.

So with the advent of this growing gender role awareness and the exposure to more boys in his social circle, I knew I'd have to deal with this. I knew the day was coming.

The day of the toy weapon. He was finding them at other kids' houses, playing with them in other back yards, in the form of water pistols or Star Wars light sabers or foam swords. This sort of rambunctious boy play is what I wanted for him, but I was struggling to reconcile it to the "NO WEAPON PLAY!" that rang out in my head.

Earlier this summer, I started reading the book Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J Cohen. Some of it I have loved--its done a lot to help me address my own issues of "ugh, this game again?!" or "If I have to play with a toy truck for one more minute I might just lose my mind," and explained to me why play is so integral to a child's development and ways to use play to diffuse minor behavioral issues. If nothing else, it helps me keep a sense of humor when I would otherwise be breaking several other of my "When I'm a parent, I'll never...." rules.

The book addressed the concept of allowing for aggressive play, toy weapon play, even when it goes against what you want for your child. Because like I said, these little people do come into this world with their own agendas--even if that agenda is just to play hard and play it all.

Cohen says, while describing a mother/son conflict where the mother continually discouraged her child's aggressive behavior towards his toys, "repetitive play does not change as long as it's played in isolation, and the mom's disapproval just made him feel more isolated. Children need our approval and enthusiasm first, before they can get out of a rut. So even if the goal is to have him stop that violent play, the only effective way is to play it with him for awhile, which gives him the elbow room to try out new ideas and new ways of dealing with his aggressive impulses," (22)

Uch. Fine. I get it. Making toy weapons taboo makes them more appealing, makes his natural curiosity about them "bad." I don't want to entice him further into a fascination with weapons, nor do I want him to feel shameful for having the interest to begin with (why does there have to be so much thinking in this parenting gig???!!!) And then I saw this blog post by my friend Sarah, whose parenting I absolutely admire and respect. If you scroll down through the post, you see some serious family hilarity involving Nerf guns--including a 2 year old locking and loading in the bath tub. I found myself laughing so hysterically at this post & seeing how much fun they were having, as a family, turning something that initially seems so violent and aggressive, into something that almost certainly resulted in full-on fits of belly laughs.

Between Playful Parenting and seeing a friend's example, it just didn't seem so threatening anymore to find a way to bring toy weapons into our world. And so, this weekend, when we were perusing Target's toy section for a birthday present, we stumbled upon a new section of boy dress-up outfits, including pirates and knights--complete with swords. Ethan giddily pointed one particular sword and I chuckled at myself a little bit, my previous lofty "When I'm a parent, I'll never..." voice getting quieter and quieter, as I once again realized that being a parent isn't just about living up to some set of rules you set for yourself before you have even met the child you're going to parent.

en garde...

Everyone knows real knights only do battle with one sock on, one sock off...

He's quite a good little knight in shining armor/pirate. Check out his popcicle-stained t-shirt--almost looks like real blood. oy.

I'm not ready to start stock-piling an arsenal of toy guns or anything like that yet. But it's been kind of fun encouraging Ethan to foster this side of his personality and embracing the rambunctious boy in him, even if I mistakenly get whacked in the noggin a couple of times with a rogue swing of his pirate cutlass here and there. It's just foam, right?


Loukia said...

There really is no harm in that kind of play! My boys love playing with their nerf guns!

gringa said...

They'll have weapons whether we give them to them or not... sticks can be very good "guns".... so it really doesn't matter.

What seems to matter is our attitude and actions re violence in our daily lives...I think-- more than the actual presence or not of "foam swords" and Nerf guns. In any case that's what I learned from the "when I'm a parent, I'll never..."

Corinne said...

My mother never bought my brother toy guns, but I remember her saying "boys will build guns out of sticks...." and of course he did.
I love the idea of joining them in play to get through and make weapon play a little less violent...

MamaBear said...

This is like the mom-of-a-boy equivalent of when Keira saw Pamela Anderson on "Dancing With The Stars" and declared her "The most beautiful lady I've ever seen!" Cue Mommy angst about what, exactly, I'm teaching her about beauty and being a female and blah blah blah...but you know what? I have a pretty good feeling that she and Ethan will both turn out A-OK. ;)

cicadalady said...

my sister said she'd never let her son play with toy guns but when he started turning everything from a breadstick to a water bottle into a gun, she just decided, whatever, and gave in. it's a stage. i think you're smart to embrace it!

Anonymous said...

Great post Sarah!

lonek8 said...

I can't say I ever had the "no toy guns allowed" intent myself, although we are not a gun friendly family persay. heck, I had a toy gun when I was three. But what I have found in general, is that toy gun or not, my kids is going to pretend to shoot you sometimes. We don't watch violent cartoons or tv, but still, he may have a toy car, or a shoe or some other piece of junk, and he is going to pretend it's a gun. it's just part of being a boy I think - just like he pretends things are cars all the time.

I think I'll look into that book you mentioned - I could use some play inspiration. I'm not a very good mom in that arena.