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Playing rough

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Joining the pack of boys who run wild through our neighborhood gardens is my nearly three- year-old son Oliver’s greatest desire. In the morning on the way home from dropping Anna Lee at preschool, he batters me with questions, “Can I play with Miki?” or “Where’s Matěj?” speaking of our 7 and 10-year-old neighbors, the eldest two in the neighborhood gang. Knowing that it’ll be hours before the boys come home from school, I divert his questions with talk of the music, exercise or art classes with similarly-aged toddlers that we attend. Or I mention that we could go see his same-age friends at the park later in the morning. But Oliver doesn’t give in. He is emphatic about what he wants, namely to play with the “big” boys.

This spring it’s become strikingly clear that my son is no longer a baby. Whereas last summer, he was content to sit in the sandbox and watch the bigger kids running circles around him, now he demands to join in. He’s often given the role of monster, and I look out the kitchen window to see him making growling noises and chasing the others around the garden. Although I enjoy watching Oliver interact with the older children, my heart always skips a beat when I glimpse one of the older boys playfully pushing him or worse, when I see them encouraging Oliver to push them over.

Recently, I overheard one of the older boys explaining a game to Oliver and another younger boy where they were supposed to push each other down in turn. The biggest boy pushed the middle-sized one and that one pushed Oliver. They were all laughing, and it seemed like harmless silliness, at least compared with some of their more potentially dangerous games involving sticks or climbing up and jumping off the wooden swing set structure. Still, once I realized what was going on, I couldn’t keep my nose out of it. But instead of chastising them, I decided to try a diversion tactic with plastic Easter eggs. I suggested the biggest boy set up an egg hunt for the smaller ones. My game lasted about five minutes, until the candy rewards I’d brought were eaten. Then it was back to fighting. Later, when I saw Oliver trying to push his friend Miki again, I reprimanded him and told him it wasn’t nice to push. But Miki interjected, “But, it’s okay with me.” I didn’t have a quick retort for that.

Even still, the pushing game doesn’t seem as violent to me as some of the other pretend games the boys play. Although it’s rare that someone has a genuine toy gun, they are experts at crafting guns, swords and daggers from the copious amount of sticks in the empty lot next to our house. When these tools fail to satisfy, a cleverly cocked finger usually does the trick.

When I mentioned my dislike of guns to my mother last year during a discussion about Anna Lee’s Halloween cowgirl costume, my mother insisted that every cowgirl needs a gun. She recounted growing up next to a house with three boys and learning to shoot a cap gun in her backyard. It’s part of Anna’s costume, she declared. At the time, we were visiting Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West theme park in the Appalachian Mountains near my parents’ home, and nearly every child was leaving with a cowboy hat and a cap gun or similar souvenir. Although I didn’t acquiesce, I didn’t forbid my mom to make the purchase either and Anna came away with a pink and silver gun and matching pink holster, which she promised she’d wear only as a part of her costume.

On our most recent visit to Radek’s mother’s house, she produced a plastic gun that she’d bought Oliver. The gun made loud shooting sounds, and on the basis of the sound-effects alone, I made Oliver leave it there. We haven’t bought Oliver a gun yet, although he has a foam-sword and a short plastic dagger that he loves to wield through the house. For some reason, watching Oliver play with a foam sword or a stick that he’s pretending is a gun seems less reprehensible to me than if he were actually holding a toy gun. I also have less of an issue with water guns, than I do with the bang-bang cap-gun or pistol variety. Most of my mom friends agree with me, although I’m not certain why we feel this way, except that the plastic water guns usually look like toys, whereas some of the toy guns are made to closely resemble real guns.

Sadly, I think I took the fun out of Anna’s gun by insisting that we keep it away from the other toys and letting her have it only on Halloween. I also asked her to keep it holstered, which she did without fuss. Had I known then, what aspirations Oliver and the neighborhood boys would have regarding guns, I might have been more lenient with Anna, but I’m not sure. I keep the gun in a closet and Oliver often asks me to take it down, but before I get around to dragging it out, he’s usually found something else (a whisk or a wooden spoon) that he’s using as a pretend gun instead.

I would have to say that the attitude of the grandparents in our family on both sides of the ocean seems to be relatively consistent. Neither of them has bought scores of guns for our children, yet they don’t seem to feel guns are a toy that should be black-listed. When my mom picked up a cowboy costume for Oliver as an upcoming birthday present, she mentioned that it didn’t have a gun, so we’d have to get one separately. Some of Radek’s richest childhood memories are playing cowboy and Indians, or dressing like a knight or a soldier with all the accoutrements, and I’m trying to keep that in mind when I make my toy judgments.

Interestingly, although Radek and I both assumed that it was more difficult to acquire a gun in the Czech Republic than in the US, the Czech Republic has similar legislation regarding gun ownership as some of the more liberal states in the United States. However, ownership of guns doesn’t seem to be the issue in the Czech Republic that it’s become in recent years in the US. There isn’t the incidence of gun-related violence here and to date there haven’t been the tragic shooting sprees that have occurred in America and elsewhere in Europe.

Despite gun regulations here, the interest among Czechs in owning guns isn’t high. An incident last year brought gun regulations to the focus of Czech media when a man killed 4-family members and tried to kill himself in what the media called one of the country’s “worst incidents of family-related violence in decades.” Out of a population of 10 million people, some 300, 000 Czechs hold gun permits, and by police accounts, most of the violent crimes are committed using illegally purchased firearms, rather than with legally obtained arms. A general Czech attitude seems to be that crimes will be committed using guns regardless of their legal status, so it doesn’t make good sense to make owning guns a crime.

One of my father’s favorite tales from his visits to the Czech Republic was encountering a group of army-dressed gentlemen hiking on the walking trails near our house while he was out on a run. Dad continued running, assuming that the men were heading deep into the forest to do their hunting. Much to his surprise, about an hour later when he came through again, the same group of men were walking on the path with pheasants and ducks hanging from their belt-buckles, shot on the very pond he’d been running past. Although pheasant hunting is a popular sport in the fields around our village and apparently even on the lakes near our neighborhood, still I’ve never encountered the average citizen wielding a gun in public.

The attitude of the Czech parents that I know toward toy guns seems to follow the Czech attitude about owning real guns. Although many of my Czech girlfriends don’t want their children playing with toy guns, having a few toy guns in the toy box doesn’t seem to carry the stigma it might among my mom-friends back in the US. I know some parents back in the US who are pro-gun ownership who have locked cases of hunting rifles in their basements, who’d never let their child, at least, not in public use a toy gun. Czech parents often seem to take the opposite tactic, giving their children the macho machine-gun their heart desires, reasoning that it’s a phase that’ll wear off soon enough, like most others.

Overall, the parents of the “bigger” boys in our neighborhood don’t seem to think that whether or not their child plays with guns is a big deal. Most of the time, they’re all too happy to have their kids out of the house playing to worry about what and how they’re playing.

Apart from prohibiting Oliver from any contact with the bigger boys, which seems cruel and ultimately ineffective, I think getting used to all the rough-and-tumble games they play is going to be more of an adjustment for me as a mother than for him. I’m guilty of reminding the bigger boys when they play in our yard that Oliver’s only two-years-old, and they should try to watch their language and their games in front of him. I also fuss at Oliver when I hear him repeating something like “You’re stupid,” which he tells me that he learned compliments of the boys. But being wild and free seems to go with the territory of being a boy, and far be it for me to try to stamp that passion out.

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