The last thing I ever expected to happen during a trip to a suburban-Connecticut pool party was that my son would fall in love with guns. Big, bazooka Super Soaker water guns, to be exact.
At the time, my son was a freshly minted 3-year-old who instantly became fascinated with water “gums.” He mispronounced “guns” as “gums,” and this was something I leveraged; I never corrected his pronunciation in order to distract him from having the word “guns” be part of his vocabulary.
He began pointing his finger in the shape of a “gum” and making a sound as if he were spraying water. He later developed a narrative: He was a policeman who was spraying water at the “bad guys.” I wish this made me feel better, but it did not.
I had to develop a better strategy because his fascination continued to grow and he began to build gunlike figures with his toys and often talked about how the police shot the bad guys.
This wore a hole in my soul. I lost sleep. Nightly, I lamented to my wife about what we should do. My reality is that I live in a world of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Tamir Rice. A world where policemen can shoot and kill a child playing with a toy gun on a playground and have the shooting be deemed reasonable.
What world do we live in? It is the same world that not only glorifies violence but also capitalizes on it and decides who has the right to bear arms—even toy guns. Why can’t my child have the right to bear toy guns? It’s a violation of a child’s right to have a healthy and active imagination.
Right now we live in a country where politicians think the solution to mass shootings is more guns, and our black children cannot even play with toy guns without the threat of being assaulted or killed. This is a very heavy burden for parents living in “do or die” Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, N.Y.
My wife and I strategized and put a plan into action. Since water guns were the source of his fascination, we taught him about Lonnie Johnson, creator of the Super Soaker, and how creating ideas can really pay off in the long run.
We then encouraged his creativity by taking him to Lego Land and allowing him to choose what he wanted to build; we thought that creating and building would redirect his energies. Now, at age 4, he can follow directions and build starships and galactic structures with little supervision.
We also encouraged our son’s curiosity about the police by taking him to meet a police officer, who showed him the inside of his police vehicle. We make sure to greet the officers on the beat in our neighborhood and wave hello to police officers every chance we get in an effort to foster a healthy attitude in our son about these armed men and women in uniform.
Finally, I try to shield him from the daily deluge of gun violence on TV by watching the news and prime-time shows when he is not around. It’s nearly impossible to turn on the television and not be bombarded with images of guns. As a media professional, I’m startled by how regularly guns are featured in commercials, especially movie trailers, where anyone from a Stormtrooper to James Bond is wielding a gun or gunlike artillery. Now that my child wants to play “gums,” my awareness has become much more heightened as a father of a young, black male child.
I will not let my 4-year-old son continue to play “gums”—I will keep trying to divert his attention. For Christmas, I bought him a bow and arrow in the hopes that it will spark an interest in archery. As a black parent living in the inner city, I simply cannot foster his fascination and allow him to play with something that will potentially get him killed.
Mikol L. Clarke is a media professional who resides in New York City with his wife and son. He enjoys traveling, singing jazz and gospel music. Follow him on Twitter.