Elementary children need to experience themselves as increasingly powerful agents in the world. As their personal power increases with age and maturity, they begin to encounter all the classical questions about power with which humanity has struggled and continues to struggle. At the root of these questions is the fact that power and its uses define relationships.
There is that in the male psyche, in particular, that is fascinated with the projection of personal power at a distance. The emperor sits in his throne room ruling his far-flung empire. The generals gather in the war room to talk about “force projection.” CEO’s earn their bonuses by expanding the “global reach” of their corporations. The eminent professor sits in his study writing books and papers calculated to demolish the theories of his colleagues on the other side of the world and change the direction of his academic discipline for all time.
Boys, on the other hand, just like to throw things. Rocks, snowballs, mud balls, dirt clods, sticks, spears, Frisbees, boomerangs, baseballs, footballs, basketballs – all involve the projection of power at a distance – and if accuracy is involved, so much the better. Standing right here, I can have an effect way over there. I can get that wooly mammoth, bear or dog before it gets me. I can get you before you get me. And I can do it even if I’m not as big, strong, fast, ferocious, agile, or smart as you.
Guns are technology’s answer to this fascination with the projection of power at a distance. This attraction, this fascination is, in itself, neither good nor bad. It just is. Yet it is clear that in the context of a life and a culture, how a boy learns to relate to his capacity to project personal power can lead to good or bad habits of mind and good or bad outcomes for the boy, his family and his society.
As with all of the raw-but-wonderful psychic energies of childhood, the key is not to squelch the energy but to channel it in positive directions. To my mind, guns are far too ambivalent a force in our society to be offered as toys to children experimenting with personal power. During my son’s childhood, there were no toy guns in our house, but there was always a clear message (“In our family we don’t pretend to shoot people”) and many choices of what Sandy Blackard has called a “Can Do” – something the child can do instead of the undesired behavior (“Maybe you could set up this bunch of tin cans in the back yard and see how far away you can stand to hit them with these tennis balls.” “Maybe we could all go to the lake to skip rocks.” “Maybe you could play catch.” “Let’s go shoot some hoops. I could use some practice on my free throws.”) If the child rejects all the Can-Do’s, the bottom line is “There must be something you could do that’s exciting and fun. Pretending to shoot people is not an option.”