To My Dear Sons,

Should boys play with guns? Maybe the question is — how should we direct the nature of little men, so they become good big men?

So, the debate rages.  Nature, or nurture?  If we raise our boys with dolls, will they be gentle caregivers?  If we forbid weapons, will they be peaceful?  You guys were my teachers.

I was a firm believer that our kids were tabulae rasae, blank slates, who would become what we made of them.  That lasted until you trained me otherwise.  Each of you came into the world very uniquely himself.  At best, Abba and I could shape you a bit, give you a gentle shove in what we perceived to be a slightly better degree of your pre-selected course.  This is in keeping with the lesson in the Talmud that discusses a certain amount of predetermination, suggesting that a particular person may, for example, “be inclined to bloodshed: either he will be a murderer, a butcher or a mohel (an expert in performing ritual circumcision).” [Shabbos 156 a]  This suggests that while a parent cannot change his child’s basic nature, he can help to direct it.

Can we say “boys will be boys”? Or is that abdicating our jobs as parents?

I could see that you were going to be physically big guys.  (We had raised dogs when I was a girl.  Big paws meant big dogs.  I extrapolated.)  So one of my goals was that you should be gentlemen who were gentle men.  But how best to achieve that goal?

Lisa Aiken, in her excellent book To Be A Jewish Woman, wrote a passage that simplified mothering for me — since it was clear to me that nurture was not going to make nature go away.

Two superheroes meet, shake hands, and vow to spend their lives thwarting the forces of darkness together.

To paraphrase, because I have loaned my copy out again:  Girls come into the world wanting to nurture everything that’s positive; and boys come into the world wanting to destroy everything that’s negative.

To add balance, we did try to introduce you to toys that encouraged the homely arts. At best, they would be used for a soldier’s meals after a day of intense fighting. Usually, though, they were rigged into clever weapons to rival MacGyver.

Like all generalizations, there will be exceptions on both sides.  (I fought my share of homemade dirt clod and inner tube wars as a wee lass.)  But suddenly my mothering path was clear.  I couldn’t take the guns out your hands.  Delightfully creative boys that you were, where guns weren’t handy, you would improvise.  A banana became a gun.  A baseball bat (plastic, of course, to minimize trips to the hospital) became a Tommy gun.  Even Barbie could be bent in half to make an interesting double-barrel pistol, with that intriguing double triggering action.

We bought you a variety of toys to offset the increasingly fascinating collection of swords and six-shooters.

We tried to nurture all of your healthy passions.

I liked the natural and gentle/earthy feel of wooden “educational” toys.  These generally became projectiles — so “natural” was scrapped in favor of the less-lethal Chuck Norris approach.  (Really.)

And then there was 9/11.

People walked around for days, shell-shocked.  There wasn’t a plane in the sky.  There wasn’t much traffic.  Guards were posted at your Jewish day school.  Mothers I knew whispered to each other, “How are your kids coping?”

My answer seemed to surprise them.  “Instead of playing cops and robbers, my boys are now defeating terrorists.”  That’s how you coped.  Not by being afraid.  Rather, by fighting evil, even in your play.

You became superheroes at every opportunity.

Since you were tiny boys, one of your greatest desires was to destroy the bad guys.  (Of course, it was wickedly delicious to get to be the bad guy sometimes…)  I give your parents a little credit for your choice of direction.  When you aimed a toy gun anywhere, we explained to you that you had a responsibility to aim your weapons within limitations.  You could not aim at grownups who hadn’t declared themselves “in the game.”  This was to teach respect: you were not on the grownups’ level, and shouldn’t presume.  You could not aim at unarmed kids.  You should aim at those who had designated themselves as bad guys, rather than at your fellow good guys.  “Fight evil.  Defend good.”  This was the family motto — even in play.

Since you were young, all you wanted in life was to defend people smaller than you from mean people who were bigger than them.

We taught you that your “weapons” should have some feature that made them look like toys to anyone who might be observing from outside, because no one should think this was not kids’ play.

We tried our best to remind you that real guns were not the same as toys, and had to be respected.

We stayed away from these. Yeah, they look harmless. Waaaaaaay more dangerous than toy guns, for sheer smackability.

Just as toy cars can be crashed into walls to add to the general excitement of your games, but real cars can kill…  Your job was to defend good people from the assaults of bad people, Israel from her enemies.  I am proud of you, and of your priorities.

So you’ve become yourselves.  There are soldiers, yes, but there are guitar players and football players, students of Torah and those who are fascinated with cyberspace.  I like and respect each of you very much.  I like who you’ve become.  You are gentle, when gentleness is called for.  You know how to look someone in the eye, and give a firm handshake.   You treat others with respect.

There isn’t one of you who takes the defense of his county lightly.  You are all soldiers for Good against Evil — and you aren’t confused (as the media and world governments sometimes might like you to be) about what Good and Evil look like.  For that reason, I and a lot of other Israeli citizens sleep well at night.  Thank you for your service to our country.  Quite frankly, I’m glad that the Good Guys are on our side.

Proud to have the good guys on our side.

You and your wives will have to decide what is best for your families and children.  Will they be permitted to play with guns?  No one can decide this for you — though, trust me, many people will give you their two shekels’ worth on the subject.  As the world becomes an increasingly violent place, child’s play must be examined very carefully, and conscious decisions must be made.  But I will give you the unsolicited advice that whatever toys you allow, be sure to teach your children that nothing, not even a toy, should be used mindlessly.

It’s the difference between choosing to be a good guy, or not.  And that choice begins when you are just a little kid, playing your future.