On pointing your finger like a gun

Posted by Sappho on January 8th, 2013 filed in Peace Testimony

“What kind of thinking leads to suspending a 6-year old for pointing his finger like a gun?” Karen Street asked on her Facebook page the other day. I decided what I had to say was too long for a Facebook comment thread.

A friend of mine who became a Catholic Worker and a firm believer in nonviolence as an adult told me once how, as a child, she used to sneak her way around her parents’ prohibition on playing with toy guns. Madge Seaver told me once that her twin sons similarly defied her “no toy guns” rule by going off and playing with guns with their friends, and they grew up to go to jail as draft resisters. As a teacher in First Day School, I’ve seen a little girl turn a toy broom into a gun. I myself, as a child, would turn my finger into a gun, my Barbie into a revolutionary, and the trapeze over a mat in my basement into a gun station from which I shot alien invaders. As I grew older, as a teen and also as an adult, I played some decidedly non-pacifist characters in Dungeons and Dragons, and similar games like Runequest and Call of Cthulhu.

Are there reasons for adults to want to check their children’s violent imaginary play? Sure.

  1. Maybe you want to make your child’s gun play a teaching moment, to remind him or her that when it comes to real guns, you don’t point your weapon at anything you’re not prepared to kill. And that we’re actually not cool with killing.
  2. Maybe you’re concerned that violent imaginary play loosens inhibitions against real life aggression. Maybe, for some kinds of play, for some people, and to some degree or other, it does. (Obviously, it doesn’t do so all the time, since a lot more of us pointed our fingers like guns or played violent video games than actually attack people in real life. But maybe sometimes your worry is justified.)
  3. Maybe pointing your finger like a gun at people who didn’t agree to be part of the game is causing trouble.
  4. Maybe, in certain contexts, playing with toy guns can put you at risk of being in real life shot. When I brought toys to a home of war refugee children in then war torn former Yugoslavia, toy guns were explicitly off the list of toys that children could request, possibly for that reason.

I don’t believe, though, that playing at imaginary guns with people you hope will join in the game is a proper place for zero tolerance. I don’t think pointing your finger like a gun, or writing a short story in which some violent thing happens, or playing fantasy role playing games, or other kinds of imaginary violent play, should occasion the same kind of discipline as hitting or hurting actual real live people. Tell kids not to point their fingers like guns, if you like, but don’t actually suspend them from school for it.

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