Teach Your Children Well. If you grew up around the same decade I did, the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s song about parenting ought to be rattling ‘round your brain right about now. The song represents some interesting ironies as well as some stark dichotomies. As folk-rockers go, you could hardly ask to find a more left-wing, anti-war, anti-Conservative bunch than CSN&Y. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find another group with a prominent member who’d done hard time for handgun possession (not to mention his whole “Things go better with Coke” philosophy.) But I come not to bury Crosby today, but to point out that many, if not all of the life lessons I learned as a child, I learned playing with (toy) guns.
A lot of people credit the Vietnam war and the generation of anti-war boomers that saw anything military as “evil” as to why kids don’t play with toy guns like they did in my youth. I’m not so sure that they’re not overlooking another major factor. Dr. Benjamin Spock influenced an entire generation with his thoughts on child-rearing. But it was his leftist philosophy that seeped into his teachings that, I think, really set the ball moving towards parents questioning the games that kids play. Spock was the first to combine a study of children with psychology and pen a book that would influence millions of parents. He was the first to question how parents discipline their children, and gave rise to an army of also-ran shrinks that took his leitmotif even farther, insisting that playing with guns would damage a child’s delicate psyche, and set them down an inexorable road to violent, anti-social behavior.
My parents were, shall we say, “old school.” All that “don’t spank your kids” philosophy held no water in the Kozak household. And I can report, firsthand, that Jean Shepherd was wrong – Lifebuoy soap may taste awful, but a mouthful of Lava bar soap is worse. Far worse. In my youth, I briefly became something of an unwilling connoisseur of bar soaps. I can tell you that, while Lava has a distinctive texture on the tongue, it’s piquant aftertaste after-burn will win no awards at the next Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
My parents believed that what was good enough for them as kids, wouldn’t kill me. That attitude was a wondrous gift, for it allowed me to play with other kids in the neighborhood, get knocked down, knocked around, and to learn to stand up for myself. But I learned most of my lessons with a toy gun in my hand. But what could a kid learn like that, other than hostility, aggression, and inappropriate group behaviors? Allow me to enlighten you, grasshoppa, with a dozen or so things I learned behind a toy six-shooter:
- Take Turns. Sometimes I was a cowboy. Sometimes I was an Indian. I liked being a cowboy, because they always won. But those that weren’t willing to take turns being an Indian soon became playground outcasts.
- Play Fair. Nothing would kill the joy of playtime faster than some kid cheating. Rules? We had dozens of them, a Byzantine system to an outside observer, I’m sure. But when you have five guys playing cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, or G.I.s and Krauts, the two man team always got the toy guns with extra rounds. Even when a round was just one us going “KA-PLOW!” out loud. Fair is fair, and when its three against two, you’ve got to even the odds.
- Take Care Aiming. Regardless of if it’s bullets or barbs, we learned rather quickly that you don’t aim at something you don’t intend to shoot, and if you’re gonna shoot, you’d best shoot to kill. This applies to wooden stick guns made in my dad’s woodworking shop, rubber band guns, squirt guns, and real guns.
- Play by the Rules. I never found out if this was true, but I heard through the grapevine that one of our merry band of neighborhood miscreants couldn’t sit down for a week, after taking it upon himself to examine one of his dad’s guns without permission. I was always too afraid of the Wrath of Dad (belt whuppin’s were his speciality) to even THINK about breaking that rule.
- Respect Another’s Property. Where I grew up, if you broke it, you bought it. If you borrowed another kid’s toy and you broke it, rest assured it was coming out of either your allowance (if you were lucky enough to have one) or your hide.
- Expand the Conflict. This worked two ways. If some kids were beating you at the game du jour, it was always fair to enlist more kids on your team. And of course, if one kid broke the rules in an egregious fashion, you could opt to expand the conflict to enlist the help of mom (for serious, yet relatively minor infractions) or dad (the playground equivalent of going nuclear). Of course, parents never bothered to intervene with other kids. Diplomats of their rank would only liaise with their opposite numbers in the enemy camp.
- Respect the Bling. We learned about the perils of oneupmanship early on. There was one kid in our happy little group that always got whatever he wanted, even before he wanted it. And if any of us got anything cool, you could rest assured that the following day, he’d have what you had, in a bigger, better, and more blinged-out model. (I understand he ended up serving 10 to 20 for embezzlement, so I’m not too unhappy about being on the losing end of that argument.)
- Share and Share Alike. They’re all my helicopters just doesn’t cut it on the playground. If you’re not willing to share your cool toys, go home. I was the first kid on my block to get a Mattel M-16 Marauder and the Mattel Western belt buckle with a swing-out derringer cap gun. I shared. (My mom made me.) Which was cool, when one of the other guys got the Batman utility belt before I did. (Never did find that damn Batarang.) And the kid who got the James Bond briefcase with the radio that converted into a sniper rifle? Let’s just say he won some serious popularity points when he shared with the class.
- Play Safe. I was around twelve years old when some sneaky little bastard threw a bottle we were using as a make-believe gun at me. It was one of those plastic bottles that motor oil for outboards came in. Probably wouldn’t have hurt me, but for the metal screw cap. Hit me square in the front incisors, and cracked the enamel. Thanks to that jerk, my mom made me wear a football helmet for all roughhousing for about six months after. The worst part? We were Dallas Cowboys fans. The only helmet she could find to fit me (not that she looked very hard) was a NY Giants helmet. Oh, the shame, the shame…
- It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools. There was an arms race that took place in my neighborhood when I was a kid. You probably never heard about it, because we received no national news coverage, no State Department visits, and no UN resolutions, condemning hostilities. The arms race I speak of commenced with the release of the very first SuperSoakers, and was exacerbated by the arms merchant that perpetually released bigger and better weapons with more capacity and increased ranges. Come to think of it, we also learned lessons about “the point of diminishing returns” (that backpack reservoir was a piece of crap, I tell you!), and build quality (or the lack thereof). They were expensive lessons, but eventually, natural selection took over and we all settled on similarly tricked-out weapons, leaving us to win, lose, or draw over our own skills. Oh, and “cold” part of the war? Nothing is quite as cold on a hot July day as getting a face full of ice water and a soaked t-shirt. Nothing.
- Play Smart. Most of what I know as negotiating skills, I learned on the playground. Those rules I mentioned earlier? They made perfect sense, because we made them up, as needed, in order to effect a “level playing field” for the majority, and to try and find a way to turn the game to our own advantage. In this way, we learned the ways of Wall Street, Congress, and politics in general.
- Play Honorably. When you’re a kid, cheating one another is a near-unpardonable sin. Cheaters never win isn’t exactly true. They can win the game, but never the war. “Bang, bang, you’re dead, I win” was a sure-fire way of never getting asked back.
I learned a lot, playing with toy guns. I even learned a thing or two about how to behave later on, when I encountered real guns, up close and personal. So should we worry about allowing our kids to have toy guns? Oh, maybe if they are playing in urban neighborhoods around situations where cops with itchy trigger fingers and poor eyesight can’t tell the difference in a toy and the real thing, sure. But that’s easily solved by providing your kids with the right guns. For me, I would never recommend a parent forbid their kids the experience of learning life lessons from the perspective of the iron sights of a trusty cap gun. For those are the kinds of lessons that you carry with you for the rest of your life.