Sword and Gun Play

(The first part of this entry is a re-worked post from my old yahoo group… I then went on to discuss gun play….)
I think the key to a lot of the questions around sword play is “can my child rise up to something within himself to play safely with this sword?”I think one should make a big deal of presenting a beautiful sword to a child – other families create little ceremonies. The point is that the child knows and understands that this is a special thing – to be used wisely.
But if the child is too young or if he’s a forgetful child who loses himself in the heat of passionate play, then I think one should wait. Let him know that “one day, when he’s ready” he will get his sword. Give him something to work on in his inner being, something to aspire to. Let him know that once he has that sword, it means he is trusted and that he, out of his own inner resources, is able to act responsibly.  Few children are ready for this until after about 6 or 7 years of age. Before that, I would let them make swords as they want to – but have strong, clear and firm rules about what is ok and what is not. Sticks will be taken away if necessary – no “swords” in the house, none when younger children are present, no running – and if he can heed these rules then you will know that he is moving toward the ability to be responsible for a proper wooden sword.
I wouldn’t suggest discussing this rationally with such a little one, though. But through story and anecdote, you can let him know that once upon a time it was a very special thing when a knight got his sword. Only the King could give it to him. He had to perform many tasks and work very hard before he was deserving of his sword, before the king could trust him to be a guardian of the kingdom….. Give it life, breath imagination into it – your boy will be rapt! And repeat at frequent intervals.
Aa youth worker of over 20 years experience, as a mother of boys and hostess of frequent “boy weekends” at our farm (which included unsupervised use of fire, knives, walking on a frozen lake, being in a barn around horses etc etc) I know that children have the capacity to play safely with swords and to use tools such as knives safely. But not when they are tiny. It is not fair to expect a little person – who is meant to be at one with the world, not an inward looking being conscious of his actions in the world – to take responsibility before his time.
A whole other kettle of fish is the use of guns, both in play and for more serious pursuits. When my boys were little, there was no gun play. Then came water guns and who can say no to that? So they were allowed – but with rules. The main rule was “no shooting at people who are not playing.” This became the main rule for all gun play – because soon we decided to let them play with guns. I have never been particularly keen on gun play. I much prefer swords because the players have to engage one another much more closely and cooperate and negotiate to make the play work. There is a lot of skill involved and one can really appeal to the “knights’ code” and such to help the boys be uplifted in their play. With guns, there is none of this. Indeed, the whole scene around gun play can be really awful – noisy, undignified, thuggish and unpleasant.
But… there appears to be something in boys – not all, but most – that not just desires such play but needs it. I have worked for too long with children, children from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds, Waldorf children and not Waldorf children,  to not recognize this very deep need.
So I think it is something that parents need to honor. I think rules need to be established  and adhered to – we had a “no guns in the house” rule (they were kept in the garage or barn and could not be played with indoors). I also think swords should be emphasized over guns because of what I said above – but really, little ones under about 6 or 7 cannot be expected to understand and keep any sword etiquette rules. So that might mean guns for a while if older siblings or neighborhood boys have gotten them into guns. But it is not too late to set clear rules (which you will have to be the guardian of) and to also present them with their swords when they are older.
One thing I certainly saw with my sons was that the care that they took with their swords did seem to have a knock-on effect with how they treated their guns. I don’t mean they cared for the guns themselves – but I did feel that far more of their gun play was actually elaborate planning and negotiating and making strategies with their friends than I have seen in other boys.
As they reached their teens, one son remains interested in guns and likes to shoot targets. The other is into archery and has no interest in guns. One of their similarly-raised friends at 18 is a pacifist with no interest in guns. And the fourth of this little group of previously gun-mad boys does occasionally go hunting with his father (he does live in rural Wisconsin!) but is otherwise the gentlest, most caring young man one would ever want to meet.
So does early “violent” play beget violent young men? I would emphatically say “NO.” Not in my family, not in my experience with friends, not in my experience with youth and children I have worked with. Real play helps children find their orientation to the world and to make sense of it. It does not lead to violence.

Posted on July 30, 2007 in Family Life and Parenting, Play

  • Alicia Reynolds says:

    This article comes as a big relief to me, but also mirrors what I have seen in my life as well. Growing up with all boys and now a mother of two boys, one more to come in November, it seems as though gun play came so naturally to them. My two boy cousins and I would create elaborate make believe stories in which guns were a part of, but more of a side note. I remember at a very early age my twin brothers at age three pretending they had guns with whatever they had, sticks, legos, etc. Now that my son is just turning two, he pretends with the garden hose and has no real idea obviously of what real guns do since I don’t believe he has even seen the older kids pretend playing with guns, but at a small age, his need for pointing this gun shaped object seems so necessary to him. His need I think comes from his sense of humor, thinking about squirting someone is hilarious, but even when we went to a yard sale, he gravitated towards squirt guns and cap guns. I’m really trying to not make a big deal out of it, it doesn’t seem like one and he’s the type of child that likes to do things just because you don’t want him to do them. I’m curious to see what others think about this article because as a past teacher in mainstream child development, it is a hot topic, very controversial and the beliefs and ideas of whether this is harmful changes every few years.

  • donna simmons says:

    Hi Alicia,
    Not sure you’ll get much of a conversation going here (though one is welcome if it starts!) because most people who want to work with me on parenting and education issues join my discussion forum…. you are most welcome to join us if you like!
    The other thing you can go is go to my old yahoo group Waldorf_At_Home and comb through the archives. The group no longer accepts posts (because all my energy is on the forum) but anyone can join it and have access to the archives. And there is a lot of wonderful information in there – there were certainly a number of conversations about sword and gun play.
    Have you looked at my earlier blogs in the “play” section or “parenting” section? You might find more there that interests you as well.
    Thanks for your comments!

  • Torun says:

    We grew up near a major city often awarded the dubious title of “murder capitol of the USA”, the majority of which murders were by gun use. Intentional use of guns aside, the number of accidental gun deaths, especially by children to children, is apalling. In addition, when one considers the metal detectors & security systems used in public schools and other public arenas to protect us from the very real dangers of gun massacres by adults and children (Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc.)I have to heartily disagree with your statement that “violent play (specifically gun play) does not beget violent young men…It does not beget violence.”
    This is not Halloween candy we’re talking about, here. Giving your child a plastic gun is more than a mere childhood indulgence. You are sending a clear message about gun use in a culture saturated with & obsessed by guns. If we are to stem the rising tide of violence in this country, I urge all parents to consider the “gun culture” in which we live and try to raise their young accordingly. My children are aware that guns are dangerous weapons, NEVER TOYS, and we do not encourage play that resolves issues with gun violence.

  • Tony says:

    Donna – I agree with your post for the most part, AND with Torun in part. I would like to offer the following as a way to combine the truths of each.
    Research has identified some fairly stable human developmental stages (Kolberg, Piaget, Lovinger, Graves, etc.) One of the stages occurs around ages 4-7 which is when the “fascination” with weapons usually starts. Graves decribes this egocentric stage as “There is a flood of free energy in his system released from considered and continuous attention to maintaining physiological life. At this time, he becomes a human awakened to inner man – physiological self and the external world. He is a human who becomes frightened by an influx of inner and outer stimulation he can neither comprehend nor control. He is in a state of frightened existence. Since he now perceives himself caught in a world of unpredictability and chaos, he strives with all at his command to achieve safety and security in this world. To attain safety and security, he seeks to create an orderly, predictable, stable, unchanging world – one in which the unexpected does not happen. As he sees it, only complete denial of this inner world and complete control of the outer world can keep him safe from the many stimuli of which he has just become aware.”
    The problem lies when that child grows up in a family/culture that does not promote development to the next stage, but rather keeps one stuck at this level of development and the only solution is using guns and violence to control their world. Which is what Torun described.
    Continued development supported by family and culture, as decribed by Donna, overcomes this tendency and moves on to stages of development where one recognizes alternatives to guns and violence to control one’s world and becomes as Graves decribes, a “sociocentric being. He believes in belonging, adjusting, togetherness. He is other-directed. Incentives stem from others and directiveness comes from the power of group opinion.” This stage emerges somewhere around ages 9-10.
    IMHO when one is able to contextualize the issue of guns, weapons, and violence within a developmental perspective, one is able to see why there seems to be an almost “in born” tendency to create a gun or sword out of anything available when one reaches this stage.
    I became interested in this as well because I have 6yo son and wanted to know why with no encouragement or family culture and limited media exposure, he began to create guns and swords for play. Now with this developmental perspective, I can calm down, and concentrate on providing the parenting guidance and wider cultural experiences that will help him develop to that next stage of development. By providing the safety and security in his perceived chaotic world, he will then, as did I, move on to play that is less egocentric and more ethnocentricly focused.
    Homeschooling Dad

  • donna simmons says:

    Thanks, Tony for sharing! You have brought much food for thought for us to consider regarding this subject.

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