Arms and the boy - FamilyEducation

Arms and the boy

June 20,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Ever since my son discovered Avi a few weeks ago, and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and The Famous Five, it's been all spies and good guys vs. bad guys, and intricate scenes of smuggling and treasure-snatching being enacted all across his bedroom floor. He'll wake early, sometimes at 5:00 a.m., and sprawl across his floor, lining up complex patterns and formations of Playmobil figures, little guys like these whom he'll strip of their knightly adornments and outfit in new hats and/or beards, until they are suddenly transformed into what he calls "Modern Men."

I bought L.his first Playmobil figure when he was three. Playmobil has been a staple in the lives of European children for decades now, and it has a smaller but no less loyal following here in the United States. I used to covet the Playmobil figures I watched my Greek friends play with when we were visiting my grandparents, so when I was browsing through Marshalls one day, with L. in tow, and I spied a Playmobil motorcycle policeman for a mere $3, I pounced.

When I opened the box outside with L., I discovered that the motorcycle policeman also came supplied with a miniscule sidearm, of course. I snuck away the tiny plastic handgun without L. noticing; we have always had a "no toy guns" policy at our house, including even water guns. I shuddered then at the thought of my innocent three-year-old even touching a toy handgun, even if it was the size of an eraser head. A year later, when I put my hand into my coat pocket, I found the plastic gun and had to smile.

We still have a no toy guns policy at our house. But since that day, L.'s Playmobil collection has expanded to include a Roman legion and a multitude of fully armed knights. I find tiny plastic swords and maces under furniture constantly, and who knows how many lances have been sucked up by our vacuum. The other day L. found a tiny black handgun wedged underneath his stereo.

"Look, Mama!" he said slyly, showing me one of his Modern Men who was now wielding a gun.

I winced.

I'll fast-forward over the discussion that then ensued, the one in which L. challenged me, as deftly as any apt debater, to tell him what the distinction was between his sword-wielding Romans and the gun-wielding Modern Man.

I'm still wrestling with this one. About a year ago I read an article (and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it or where I read it--sorry) that challenged parents to rethink tough stances on children--boys in particular--playing with toy weapons. The author proposed that role-playing games between good and evil, and heroes and anti-heroes, are opportunities for young boys to feel more in control of a world that is a dangerous and anxiety-producing place for many kids. If we restrict our children's abilities to explore what it feels like to be a hero, to conquer the "bad guy," then we handicap them emotionally when the time comes for them to truly face the adversaries in their own lives.

I didn't buy this argument entirely, and I still don't--obviously there are many fatal flaws in it. But it gave me pause to think. L. is an extremely anxious child who lives in fear of a great many things in his world. When I sneak a look in on his games and I watch him with his Playmobil figures, as he acts out classic tales of good and evil, hero and villain, he is clearly larger than his fears at that moment. He is Master of his World there, on his bedroom floor, exploring what it means to be fearless, as he sends forth his armies of Modern Men to make the world a safer place.