Toy guns and toxic masculinity

Pow pow! I struggle to get the boys, just gone three and five, to stay in their seats. The boy behind them on the bus has a toy gun and is pretending to shoot his sister, then aiming the weapon at strangers in the street outside. Pow pow pow!

We never allowed our lads to play with guns. They build weapons of Lego, chew their toast into what just about resembles a pistol, and they use their hands; I can’t control their imagination, nor would I want to. But buying plastic imitations of the tools of war, intended to kill – that’s where I draw a big, fat line.

I know I’m in the minority here, and even in literature the verdict is still out on the benefits and dangers of playing with guns. Kids make sense of the world through play; how are they supposed to make sense of war if they can’t pretend to be killing each other?

Raising sons to be emotionally mature, sensitive, kind and strong in the deep, gentle sense is a challenge to say the least, but as a parent of two boys I see it as one of my most important tasks. When we talk about toxic masculinity, some men get defensive and protest: the state of modern society is not their fault. And I agree – to an extent, at least. We’re all products of the society we grow up in. Put a toy gun in the hands of your three-year-old, and you can’t be surprised when they turn to violence in their teens or struggle to solve problems by talking things through.

My sons aren’t dealing with the ethical implications of war; they’re not trying to make sense of their experience of it, because they have none. Their desire to play with guns doesn’t come from within. I’m pretty sure that the first time they ever saw a gun was in a toy shop – and they saw plenty of them there: aisles upon aisles of ways to be a man, most of them consisting of dark colours, toughness and ways to attack and defend. The superheroes they’re presented with are not kind and sensitive; they don’t outsmart their enemies and relate to people’s emotions. They judge and attack – BAM.

Boys will be boys, I hear the comments echo. They need loose-fitting clothes for running and climbing, durable toys that don’t break when they smash them off the walls. And they need guns to make sense of the world, to channel those inner urges. It’s almost as if we’re afraid to talk to them about respect. You’d nearly think we view their inner urges as uncontrollable, their desires as entitlements.

I’m not trying to make my sons into one thing or another – I’m not trying to take their personalities away or make them less like boys, whatever that means. I want them to be happy, and I want them to be kind, and they can be those two things any way they wish. I’m not the one who’s trying to shove my kids into ready-made moulds here; the toy shop aisles, on the other hand, don’t leave much room for improvisation. Be hard or be a girl, the latter of which is the worst insult imaginable.

Kids make sense of the world through play. I wonder how the kids who have come here from war-stricken countries make sense of this world when their classmates get the guns out. And I wonder how my sons will feel in moments of weakness, when their inner superhero is all but silent and they realise that they’ve never quite made sense of difficult emotions and learnt to talk things through. Is that when they reach for the guns?

I’m not worried that my kids are going to go out and kill people. I’m not worried that they’re going to grow up to start wars – not literally speaking. But I’m worried about a generation, many generations, of boys who become men without having ever been taught how to hold their weakness, how to ask for help and check in with their friends – genuinely – to see how they’re feeling. I’m worried about a society where the only way to be a man is one of physicality, audacity and aggression.

Look at the world around you. Look at Weinstein, and look at Trump. I wonder what they played with as young boys.