I was in the adjacent bedroom, cleaning up, when Sophie burst in, sweaty and delirious from her nap.
She turned her palms up and wiggled her fingers, “Look, Mommy! I’m shooting!”
I was quite sure I had not heard my daughter correctly, “You’re what?”
“I’m shooting! Like Marcos*.” Marcos is another three-year-old in her class at my mother’s preschool. Now, I know that my mother does not permit gun play or war toys in school. Still, it doesn’t stop the kids who have seen it elsewhere (television, video games, older siblings) from trying to shoot their less street-savvy preschool peers.
I touched her hands gently. “Sophie, I know Marcos was doing it. But shooting is naughty. Did Miss M make him stop?”
“Yes, she did.”
“So you see, shooting is something you are not supposed to do. Not ever. I know that you are just playing, but shooting is a bad thing to do.”
Words are failing me. How do I talk about shooting without talking about shooting? I can see in her eyes that she doesn’t understand. That she might as well be making tickling motions. But she doesn’t pursue if further. And she stops.
I call my mother. “Mom, I think you should know the three-year-olds are shooting each other?”
“In your school. In Sophie’s class. The three-year-olds are pretending to shoot each other. With guns.” I told her what Sophie did.
“Melissa,” my mother sounded very tired, “we try to put a stop to it when we see it. But it happens. She’s going to get exposure to these things.”
“Yeah, but what do I tell her? How do I help her understand that it is a bad thing?” I feel…helpless. “Tell her they are bad. Tell her they can hurt people. You know, an 8 year old in Queens sold a gun to another kid for three dollars on Friday. It was loaded. In a good area.” This is not helping me feel better.
That evening I consult Kevin, after Sophie’s gone to bed. I do a demo, wiggling my fingers in his direction.
Kevin took one look at me and said, “He’s shooting webs. He’s pretending to be Spider Man.” Kevin has an expertise in superheros.
Of course! I gave a big sigh of relief. Spider Man! Why didn’t I think of that? Marcos LOVES Spider Man. He’s always getting into trouble for pretending to be Spider Man.
I call Mom, “It’s okay. Kevin, figured it out. Marcos was pretending to be Spider Man.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” my mother agreed. “He’s always pretending to be Spider Man.”
The next day, as Sophie was getting dressed she asked me, “Mommy, what’s a gun?”
My head whipped around at the question, “A what?” I really think I have a hearing problem when it comes to talk of weaponry.
“A GUN. What’s a gun?”
“Why do you ask?” I’m stalling.
“Because Marcos was shooting a gun at me.” My heart sinks. Why couldn’t Kevin have been right? Really, you’re supposed to cock your thumb and aim your pointer finger at your victim. Who shoots at other people by wiggling their fingers?
I go with the most simple, benign explanation I can think of. I pull a copy of A Fly Went By off the shelf and open to the page that has a man with a gun. I point to the object in his hand. The thing I previously omitted from the story. “This,” I tell her with great reluctance, “is a gun. People use them to kill animals, so they can eat them. That’s called hunting. See, this man is a hunter.” I stop there. I’m not sure what else to say. I don’t want to freak her out about her food. I know she doesn’t have a concept of death yet.
She’s fascinated. “This is a gun?”
“Yes.” I tell her.
“A gun?” I think she is picking up on my distaste for the topic. “Yes, Sophie. Now let’s focus on getting dressed.”
“Can we bring this book with us?”
“Yes, we can.” I sighed, hoping we were not going to spend the rest of the afternoon talking about guns. I wasn’t satisfied with my response, but apparently she was, because she didn’t ask again.
Though I wish I could have kept weapons out of her awareness for another year or two, I do know that these questions are inevitable. The problem is that you can’t control the timing of them. They arrive suddenly, without warning, little bombs dropped out of blue skies, when you are least prepared for the assault.
So, knowing I had to arm myself, I conducted a little gonzo research.
Over a lovely picnic lunch at the Japanese Gardens, I shared the story with my friend Jen, who also has an inquisitive preschooler (one, who, by the way, just asked how babies are made). Jen and I talked about the conventional wisdom when it comes to answering difficult questions from kids:
1. Find out why they want to know.
2. Answer the questions in earnest
3. Give factual information in an a developmentally appropriate way
4. Give as little information as they need to be satisfied
5. When they stop asking, stop answering
Then we discussed what that minimal, factual, developmentally-appropriate response to “What is a gun?” might be. Jen said that, because she lives in the city, she thinks it’s important to convey the dangers of guns. I nodded my head, realizing that in my desire to shield Sophie from the evil that people do to each other, I had neglected to speak about this aspect of guns. And, having known someone who was tragically shot and killed right outside his own home, I am well aware that one does not have to live in the inner city to encounter gun violence.
Other parents offered excellent, clean, clear language in response to my inquiry on Facebook:
Kim: “A gun is a weapon. Only grown ups should touch weapons. Who are some of the grownups who have guns? Police officers, guards, etc. Kids should not touch guns. If you see a gun at a friend’s house, go tell a grown up, but don’t touch it.”
Ross: “There are lots of types of guns. They are used to shoot things, like water guns, clue guns, and the kinds of guns that police carry. Guns can be very dangerous…so it’s important that you talk to mom or dad if you see a gun or someone talks about guns. If you ever see a gun, you have to come talk to me about it.”
I loved the emphasis they placed on the instruction: if you see a gun, come talk to me about it.
I’m so grateful to be surrounded by wise, been there-answered that, parents who I can call upon in my moments of uncertainty. If only I had the prescience to know that next question, I could consult my team of experts and have a reply at the ready.
But now, my arsenal is ready:
A gun is a weapon. A weapon is something that can hurt or kill a living thing. Once something is killed and is dead, it is gone. It can never come back. So guns can be very dangerous. Only grownups can touch guns, police have guns, which they learn how to use in police school. Kids should NEVER touch guns. If you see a gun or someone shows you a gun, come talk to me about is right away. I will keep you safe.
Go ahead and ask me, Sophie.
*Name has been changed.