Arms the Boy

One afternoon during March Break, my son and I drove across town, parked along a side street and knocked on a stranger’s door. We were greeted by a man I’d met over the Internet. “Leave your shoes on,” he insisted, as though we might need to leave in a hurry.

Across his dining room table were strewn a variety of guns: three automatic rifles, a pair of high-powered pistols, magazines of various sizes. “Do you need a duffel bag?” he asked. I nodded and asked if he wanted cash. Then we packed the guns into the trunk of our car.

We were ready, at last, for my son’s 13th birthday party.

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Okay, before you dial 911 or Social Services, let me be clear: These were Nerf guns. Rented toys that shoot foam darts. The kind with which every boy apparently dreams about chasing his friends, on the day he becomes a teenager.

Which my wife and I were fine with. Sort of. Maybe.

One day, every parent must sit down and have that tough conversation about the G-word. In Canada, “gun talk” doesn’t mean showing an eight-year-old how to chamber a round or explaining classroom hiding spots for “active shooter” drills. The news cycle of American school shootings has become a nightmare factory for modern parents.

No, our chat isn’t about real guns, but rather simulations. Some families hold to Quaker-like principles and ban toy guns from their homes, yards and digital screens. Then there’s the rest of us. For dads, our Maginot Line of best intentions gets overrun by boyish lobbying and nostalgic memories of our own favourite playground weapons.

But where do you draw the line? Water pistols are fine but a veto on projectile launchers? Yes to goofy space blasters but no to realistic replicas? Laser tag okay, but paintball and BB guns only when kids are old enough to drive?

At first, my wife and I took a laissez-faire (read: lazy) approach. We resisted buying our kids plastic weapons, but if they got a water pistol in a loot bag, that was fine. Three Christmases ago, Santa delivered Nerf pistols. (You can’t deny the Big Guy!) Then our kids got larger Nerf rifles from their grandparents—who also get a pass on questionable gifts.

We set some ground rules. No sniping in the house. Protective eyewear during backyard battles. But still we wondered: Was our helicopter parenting hovering too low or too high?

I grew up with cap guns and suction-cup pistols as I play-acted Cops and Robbers or Kirks versus Klingons with my friends. Make believe of this sort allows kids to enter creative zones and learn to negotiate their own rules of engagement outside adult authority.

Still, I sometimes worry about “dark play,” how our kids’ imaginations can be distorted by media messages and aggressive tendencies in our culture. Saying “It’s just boys being boys” makes sense…until they are no longer boys and it doesn’t. So many recent tragedies in the world seem to come from the loaded barrel of an angry young man.

But that’s not what I saw as my son and his friends charged around our yard during the sleepover party for his 13th birthday. For hours, they hooted and dodged between appliance boxes that my son and I had spray-painted as cover. Rainbow darts whistled through the air until past nightfall.

It looked like so much fun that his little sister and I grabbed Nerf weapons and joined the battle the next morning. My neighbours were likely tempted to call the authorities by then, if only at the sight of a middle-aged man running around in his pyjamas, sniping at children with a hot-pink long bow, hollering with the memory of what it’s like to be a boy again.

David Leach is the Chair of UVic’s Department of Writing and the head coach of the Carnarvon Red Pandas. For birthdays and other local events, check out

David Leach
David Leach
David Leach is a professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria and author of Chasing Utopia.