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Parents Talk: War Games (or Sometimes Letting Boys be Boys is a Good Thing)

How do you let go of worrying about guns and kids playing loose outside, and let them make their own fun?

I live in a defacto war zone. Outside my apartment, there are almost always guns blazing and a platoon of young soldiers in various stages of hand-to-hand combat or strategizing for a fresh firefight.

Luckily for me, the guns are made by Hasbro's Nerf, and my son is one of the troops, which to me have redefined the term "friendly fire."

The first time my son witnessed this group of boys, ranging in age from six years up to about twelve years old, engaged in combat, he literally shook with excitement. At the time, they were mounting one-on-one battles by matching opponents with similar weapons, and my aspiring Army man had a Nerf sword nearly bigger than himself that he couldn’t wait to test out with a worthy competitor.

Wary as I was, I’d already felt like my own war to keep my home from becoming an armory was already lost, so I watched them play for a while to make sure my son wouldn’t get hurt or be running around the parking lot in an overexcited testosterone frenzy. To my surprise, the group immediately accepted him and his oversized rubber sword into the fold.

This was hard for me, because I have always been an anti-gun parent. When my daughter was little, I became rabid if little boy playmates or classmates brought toy weapons over to our house to play or even pointed a finger like a gun.

When my son was a bit younger, he played guns at his father’s house all the time, so it was hard to get him to turn it off when he came home, and to explain to a four-year-old how it was okay to play gun fighting at one home but not the other. I thought my best bet might be to teach him not to point them at people, only targets or imaginary big game, which also became a power struggle game of how not to be caught pointing a gun at your sister.

So, I’ve never “liked” the guns, but it’s been interesting to me to see how this brigade of boys plays out their fantasies, and I’m coming to realize that there could be some benefits to just letting the boys be boys.

For one, these are a bunch of kids, organizing themselves together outside, running, jumping, hiding, and interacting with little adult interference. They’ve developed a small mock military society, complete with commanders, second-in-command (for the frequent occurrence of a commander being away on furlough visiting a non-residential parent), and skills tests to determine the best use of the troops skills and equipment.

Secondly, the kids get an opportunity to show they can handle limits and to look out for each other. Since my son’s on the younger side, for instance, I tell him what his boundaries are in front of the older boys, and I’ll be darned if those boys not only respect his boundaries, but also make sure to include him in the game within what I call my “earshot zone,” if he can’t be seen or heard by me, he’s gone too far.

Third, at least for my son, who has no siblings of similar age at home, there’s the benefit of simply being able to walk outside and find someone to play with. I’m all for play dates and organized activities, but kids are totally dependent on adults to make those things happen. This is a way that my son can be social when he wants to, organically, something I think has been a little lost for our generations of kids who no longer live next door to their classmates. At the same time, they are learning to get along with kids of different ages from different backgrounds, and creating the fun childhood memories that they’ll tell their own little boys about someday.

So, while I still don’t exactly love hearing about the latest greatest gun my little guy wants to buy, just from talking to some of these kids and observing my son, it’s clear that the game is not as much about fighting the battles as about the freedom they win by playing it.

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