‘Tis the season, to be jolly, but let’s be real: parenting at Christmastime is difficult. Between meeting the unreasonable demands of hostile toddlers to splitting yourself between familial obligations, holiday get-togethers, school pageants, work parties, and countless white elephant exchanges, there is only so much of to give. We have become more hostile and stressed than we should be during such a festive, garland-filled season.
Merry. Flipping. Christmas.
But there are the moments that make the holidays magical: the twinkling lights adorning the street, even your neighbor’s house, the one with icicle lights year round. Then there are the intoxicating smells of Christmas dinner wafting through your home, seasoned with care, nostalgia, and anticipation. If you’re so lucky to have a child, his or her tiny, crooked smile and laughter overheard (while savagely tearing through wrapped packages, strewing debris promiscuously throughout every room) makes the hustle and bustle to make it all happen worthwhile.
Experiencing all the hoopla through the eyes of my child has reawakened my inner kid, and the sheer, unbridled joy shown by my son Ezra makes all of the stress slowly seep away. That is, until the moment when he opens that present.
We all know that present, the one that causes you and your spouse to look at each other, communicating through eye contact and brow raises alone. That present is larger than you can think of space for, and the behemoth size of the bag or box or crate it comes in chills your bones more than the winter weather. That present requires those batteries, the ones you know you don’t have. Nobody has them. Hell, they’re the ones you’ve never even seen. You’re pretty sure those batteries are the same ones that control pacemakers or hearing aids and of course, they neither come with the item your child cannot wait to play with, nor can they arrive in the two days you’ve come to expectantly demand from Amazon Prime. Maybe that gift has so many flashing lights that it is accompanied by a seizure warning, worse yet, it makes a variety of sounds so loud, yet has no obvious volume control (short of a hammer). That present is the kind a parent would never, under any circumstance, buy for their own child let alone buy for any other similarly-peopled household. This is an unwritten compact between parents who wouldn’t dare bring such an apocalyptic item upon one another..
That present makes you silently plot the death of the person who so kindly gifted it unto your wide-eyed and grinning human-in-training. May that death be slow and painful, like watching Frozen for the thousandth time.
There are those presents, however, that don’t fit into any of the categories mentioned above, presents so off-putting that you cannot immediately react because you weren’t prepared to do so. That present, for me, is a gun, and my kid fucking loves it.
Granted, no one bought my son a new Glock or Smith and Wesson, but a toy gun, one that, with the exception of color and material composition, looks an awful lot like an average handgun.
I married into a family of law enforcement. My father-in-law is a respected, retired detective. My brother-in-law currently patrols the city, actively keeping citizens safe. Needless to say, possessing and properly handling guns is an occupational must for them. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for them as people and professionals. Since retiring, my father-in-law has become a bit of a gun collector. Personally, I respect his right and want to own a gun, but the collecting thing never really makes sense to me, especially since few items in his hoard are of actual historical significance. People collect stamps. People collect baseball cards. People, apparently, also collect things that can kill other people.
On Christmas day, we gathered at my in-laws’ house for Christmas dinner and the opening of presents, my son and his cousin running and playing as children do, nosing through the gifts patiently perched beneath the tree. Once dinner is inhaled, the present portion of the evening’s program can begin.
I must admit, being an adult is not nearly as fun as being a child, for many reasons, but Christmas is pretty much the ultimate experience for little ones, especially those who can keep themselves entertained by crumpling up tissue paper or ripping wrapping paper into minuscule shreds.
At some point, while enraptured by all the festivities, I lost track of what gifts had been opened by whom. Piles of half-open boxes lay separate from crumpled paper and other casualties of Christmas. Suddenly, my son runs towards me, beaming, brandishing something in hand.
“Look what Uncle Nick got me!”
Handing it over, I incredulously nod. “Yes, well, would you look at that!” I look over at my wife, whose nervous smile enjoys my son’s pleasure, while simultaneously bites back some other emotion, one not yet clear to me.
My son trots off, and as the present unwrapping winds down, he begins to shoot his new, toy gun at the furniture. The dog seeks cover. This is when I have to become a parent I didn’t know I’d be: one who must decide if my kid will be one who plays with guns.
The toy itself, some may argue, is innocuous; it doesn’t shoot real bullets, and it wouldn’t easily be mistaken for an actual gun. It is not metallic, and in the hands of my toddler, it looks harmless. What immediately concerns me is the message it send my child: guns are something you can play with.
No son, no they’re not. Not in our house, at least.
What bothers me the most about the situation is not even the gun, but rather the complete disregard or consideration of whether or not such a toy is even okay to purchase for my child. Before you buy my kid a gun, please ask.
Because my wife and I reached some unspoken agreement that we would deal with this later, Christmas evening not the exact moment for such a discussion, my son carried on shooting away, terrifying the dog and me alike.
After saying our goodbyes and loading up my car, I look over to my wife in the passenger seat and say, “You know that’s not coming in our house, right?” And it didn’t. Well, it did, but only to be immediately and casually discarded into the trash, unbeknownst to my unsuspecting kid.
My wife and I had never had the talk as to whether or not such a toy would be something we would allow our child to play with, but that talk never happened because buying a toy gun is simply something we wouldn’t do. Obviously, that didn’t exclude the purchase from being made by someone else, someone who didn’t think before buying my kid a gun.
This isn’t from a place of anger, and I’m not suggesting that it’s purchaser is some malevolent being. This isn’t intended as a challenge to second amendment rights, but rather a parent’s concern about the messages that are sent to my child, messages that are out of my control, unintended, and, in my opinion, harmful. Handing a toddler a gun, toy or not, makes his hand comfortable with holding such an object, a hand that, at nearly four, is just grasping how to hold a pencil, a much more worthy function of muscle memory. Seeing his little fingers wrapped around the gun’s handle, watching his posture shift as my sister-in-law coached his stance, hearing the plastic “click” of the trigger, I realized that his isn’t a toy at all. This was an end-run around gun safety, means for desensitizing my child towards gun violence.
Not in my house. This is not something I just want my kid to “play” with.
Before you buy my kid a gun, think of the kid he is: he loves Thomas the Train, Paw Patrol, books, and music. A gun would never be on his list. Before you buy my kid a gun, think about the message you’re sending. Before you buy my kid a gun, ask me if I, myself, own one, or am comfortable having a conversation with my toddler about the perils of weapons, such as, you know, death, or at least, physical harm.
The day after Christmas, our house a disaster zone of toy box carcasses, battery casings, and a handful of tools, my sleepyhead of a child asks for his toy gun. His mother, sitting him down, explained to him the perils of guns and why, we, as a team, had decided his gun was better off gone.
“But it was mine!” he wailed, and somewhat rightfully so. “I wanted it!”
“I know you did, bud,” I tried consoling. “But there are so many other things that make better toys.” But, it was of no immediate use. Of course, that lesson may have been lost on him in that moment, him feeling only the sting of parental deception. Soon enough, the hurt fades, and we are on the floor, together, pushing around some other newly-received toy.
This Christmas tale is not one of toddler woe, however. It is a tale of parental unity in the face of an unconsidered obstacle, a story of prioritizing our own familial ethics over a “harmless” plaything, that toy we didn’t know we didn’t want. Without a doubt, there will be some horrifyingly annoying thing that my kid will unwrap in the future, a masterpiece of flashing lights and whizzes and bangs and screeches requiring microscopic screws, D batteries, a circular saw, a strong alcoholic beverage, and the patience of a saint to assemble. I’ll take that toy, even if you don’t ask me before you buy it.