The Nerf Dilemma

Below is a picture of my younger son’s final Christmas wish list. This is not the original list; that was about seventeen versions ago. Writing the list was serious business. Brow creased in concentration, my son wrote and rewrote, revised and crumpled up papers—until he was ready to hand it over to our house elf, Sam, to deliver it to Santa. Now, if you look closely at his list, five out of eight of his must-have-or-this-Christmas-will-be-the-worst-one-ever-items are Nerf products.

And that’s because he is obsessed with all things Nerf, as are all the other boys in our neighborhood. Nerf has taken over my house. And my yard. And my driveway. THE BULLETS ARE EVERYWHERE. There hasn’t been a load of laundry in the last few weeks that hasn’t produced at least a couple of shiny, clean Nerf bullets. Fierce Nerf battles break out in our neighborhood on an almost daily basis. Straight off the bus, the boys arrive with their gear: Nerf Modulus Tri-Strikes, Nerf N-Strike Elite HyperFire Blasters, Nerf N-Strike Elite Strongarm Blasters. After some extensive war strategy planning, the kids form two teams and then they swarm the immediate or sometimes not so immediate vicinity of the army camp, AKA my house. There is yelling, there is screaming (and the occasional crying, surprisingly rare though,) and a relentless hail of blue bullets. Occasionally, my daughter will participate, reluctantly, if she doesn’t have anything else to do, but for the most part she watches the boys flail around in their “tactical” bullet vests (with bullet storage to enable quick reload capability) and rolls her eyes at them.

 You can probably imagine that this toy gun obsession presents one big, fat dilemma for me. Up until a few months ago, I stood firm: There will be no toy guns in my house. Running around and pretending to shoot other people is not how we play in this house. And then I caved. I didn’t just give in; I made a conscious decision that went against everything I believe in. I scoured the Internet for articles that would prove that I was doing the right thing by refusing my son’s pleas to let him join the gun-wielding troupe of boys outside. And it turns out—not necessarily.

This is one of many articles I read and really found useful. It makes the case for why this kind of play is normal, and maybe even important, especially for boys:

The article cites studies that indicate that when kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions. The way they play can be interesting and important to observe. If their play is creative and imaginative, it can be beneficial for their development and growth. But if their play seems suspicious and rings a warning bell somewhere inside you, it may expose helpful clues that your child has impulse-control or aggression issues.

My own convictions and (strong) hesitations aside—it didn’t seem like a development I would have been able to nip in the butt either way. In a pinch, sticks, wooden spoons, and even bananas (what?) will be turned into imaginary guns. And I realized that the bigger a deal I made out of not wanting toy guns in my house, the more my son really, really wanted them. He was going to his friends’ houses to play with Nerf guns there, instead of here. So far, their playing seems to be innocent. The good guys “take care” of the bad guys. The good guys always win. My son and his friends are incredibly creative in the way they use their guns. They play out whole narratives, they collaborate and strategize. They set up elaborate forts and repurpose all kinds of vital household items into shooting targets and shields.

And so, even though every fiber of my being revolts against it, I let my son run around my back yard, his Nerf N-Strike Modulus ECS-10 Blaster at the ready and wearing his protective safety glasses (that’s one battle that I DID win.) Somehow I have a feeling that Santa is an adamant pacifist though and will be focusing more on the Legos (of any kind) than toy guns and ammunition. One new gun, maybe. And more bullets. There are never enough bullets. 

Rhiannon Navin