The mission of the Men's Resource Center for Change is to support men, challenge men's violence, and develop men's leadership in ending oppression in our lives, our families, and our communities.

First Time Visitor? Click here.


About the MRC

Programs & Services

Voice Male--Spring 2006

Raising Our Sons

Boyhood Without (Much) Weaponry

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

I've never bought a toy gun or sword. Before our first child, gender unknown, arrived, we vowed to do what we could to keep our household weapon- and Barbie-free. Our simplistic reasoning: weapons encourage boys to emulate tough warriors, and Barbie encourages girls to value unattainable body measurements over actual accomplishments. If we could shield our kids from these toys, surely the underlying messages wouldn't filter through, or at least not so strongly. We were somewhat naïve, of course. We didn't really take into account the influences of societal norms or peers' preferences. Nor did we imagine that this wouldn't be easy to pull off.

Certainly, we weren't wrong about the forcefulness with which those toys are promoted. One need only walk down the blue aisles at Toys "R" Us to confirm that from GI Joe to all types of weaponry, the explicit, prevailing notion is that boys and fighting go together. According to the toy industry, "boys will be boys" means boys will fight. So buy them guns.

Consider some of the most popular marketed "boy" categories of fantasy play: construction, racecars, firefighters, knights, space aliens, cowboys, and pirates--and this is leaving out media influences like the Star Wars franchise. Firefighters have axes, used purposefully in their work, just as construction workers require saws and drills. Knights and pirates have swords, essential equipment for their historic battles.

The first sword that entered our house, carried by a semi-smiling plastic knight prepared to slay a green dragon, measured not much more than the tip of my pinky. This gift, ripped open instantly, now belonged to the burgeoning toy collection. I grabbed the sword, hid it in my hand and rushed it out of sight. When your first child moves from toys large enough to put in his or her mouth to toys comprising seemingly infinitesimal tiny parts, you scramble not to lose any all-important pieces. So, after this stealth operation, I hesitated. By messing with the toy's pristine intactness, I was trying to ensure that ours would become a gentle knight, or at least one wily enough to slay the dragon without weaponry. I tossed the bright plastic sliver into the garbage, and that sword was never missed. While we've never bought any guns or swords, gun-fighting or sword-fighting toys, knights and pirates do live in our house alongside construction guys and baby dolls. (And one lone "Glinda" Barbie. She was a prize at a baby shower for a lesbian couple. Glinda's shoes and crown are long gone, her gown resting in a bin; she appears from time to time naked with disheveled blond hair, legs usually splayed in some strange position, far from any societal ideal of beauty). My husband brought in his childhood Lego sets, which included knights with swords and shields. Unlike me, he didn't toss the weapons out before handing the set over. A foam pirate bath toy has the swords already in the pirate's hands. Another pirate, a gift, joined the collection recently; there was a larger knight set with more weaponry that was traded in (before it was noticed by the three-year-old) for an arctic explorer. These pirates and knights do get played with some. Over time, I've begun to understand that there's a balance to be found; while I deem weaponry bad, I also must respect my kids' interests--anyone have teens who like gangsta rap?

Take the stick that becomes a sword or the finger a gun. I used to quash made-up weaponry play immediately. But I started to think about how essential it is to reckon with impulse, aggression, power, and even the fantasy of destruction. I flashed back to how many beaten, drowned, and dismembered Barbies suffered throughout my childhood. Much like learning that kids need to be loud and need to race around even when the space to do so feels impossibly small or crowded, I wanted to create some room for this exploration. At the same time, I wanted to convey to them how I feel about violent play and more so about violence in general. Nowadays, the conversation goes something like this, when they are pretending to sword-fight (which occasionally happens): "Be careful, you guys. Why are you fighting?" The most usual response: "We're knights. We won't hurt each other." If, however, sword or gun is pointed at me, I redirect the fantasy straightaway. "I don't want to be shot. I don't think it's ever fun to pretend with a weapon that in real life kills people."

My eldest son, now 10, was never into fighting. Famously, at a four-year-old birthday party where boys were wielding laser swords with frantic, gleeful fury, he endeared himself to every parent in the backyard by declaring, "Stop with all that fighting. I don't like weapons." He reads all sorts of fantasy, some with violent battles, plays with Yu-Gi-Oh cards (the game features dueling) and enjoys other games involving conflicts from Battleship on out. His values are peaceful, environmentally conscious, antiracist, against gender discrimination--in short, all I could hope for.

The seven-year-old, who says he likes the way the swords and shields look on the Lego guys, recently drew an elaborate picture of an alien war machine, which also fixed the roads on Mars. He published a letter to the editor in our local paper this past summer denouncing war. He and the three-year-old love to wrestle--heaps of kids-style--with his friends Kate, Alex, and Ella. None of my kids has ever asked for a toy weapon.

Do their peace-affirming values have anything to do with not having weapons or guns or television? I can't know--sample-size my one household, my three boys--but given all the studies of how prevalent violence is in children's cartoons, I can only guess that this has helped. While we do talk about gun violence, the Iraq war, and other such issues, reality in our household plays out less about morals and more about how we live: with soccer and ballet, drawing and homemade obstacle courses, lots of books and lots of hugs. And, of course, the odd pirate, knight, and alien war machine.

Writer and mother Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser lives in western Massachusetts and writes for a number of publications, including the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.) and the Valley Advocate.

236 North Pleasant St.
Amherst, MA 01002
Fax 413.253.4801

Satellite Office:
29 Howard Street
Springfield, MA 01109