Last Saturday evening we brought our fall decorations down from the attic. It’s always a fun time for our family, opening up boxes and unwrapping items to rediscover the trick or treat hidden inside. “Remember this one?” my youngest squealed. Then they found their costumes from last year and within minutes they were engaged in a full superhero dress rehearsal. Sunday morning the costumes had still not lost their appeal.
I had finally gotten around to making some coffee and had just gotten off the phone with my mother. I headed out to the front porch swing as I frequently do to enjoy a cup or two. The porch swing has always been one of my favorite spots to read and write and think in any house I’ve been lucky enough to have one.
The boys followed me as they love to do, to play outside in my company. They were in full costume – Captain America and Spiderman respectively. I must say, they looked really cute and I was surprised at how well their costumes still fit them. A perfect fit- that you know they are just weeks away from outgrowing! I quickly validated my decision to, when in doubt, buy the bigger size. Matt and I had avoided the superhero costumes in the early years by gently guiding our boys toward panda bears, sea turtles, owls, dragons, puppies and fire fighters. But we knew once pirate costumes came into the picture, superheroes would be a logical next step.
Honestly, it’s odd to me that Kallen has desperately wanted to be a Transformer, Spiderman or Captain America since the age of 3. Most of what he learned about these shows and their beloved characters was through his friends at school. Peer socialization at its earliest and best. Figuring out what is cool, masculine or not and the best approaches to successfully navigating playground politics.
Back out in the front yard, the wrestling and posturing began. “I am Captain America”, exclaimed Kallen. “And I am Spiderman”, my 5 year old, Kasen, yelled back. Each had a toy gun, one a nerf gun and the other a pink water gun. Similar to the costumes I suppose, we had intended to avoided toy guns in our home and then at different points in time convinced ourselves that, “it’s only a nerf gun” and “it’s 105 degrees out and it’s just a water gun.” Part of me knew I should probably just let things play out, so to speak. But part of me was highly uncomfortable as I watched them yell, chase and shoot each other.
Eventually, Kasen worked up a thirst and ran into the house for a drink. Kallen sat on the porch with me waiting. He was processing the game they had been playing, explaining why he won the last round and the events leading up to the victory. True to form my heart started racing. I was aware in that moment that I could smile and nod and let them keep playing or I could attempt to navigate an age appropriate conversation with my 8 year old about gun violence and how mommy feels torn about the nature of their play and why.
I started the conversation with Kallen by pointing out that guns are very political in our country right now. A lot of people believe guns should be easily accessible I explained, while others feel that when guns are too accessible, uninformed people, people in crisis and mean people use guns to hurt and kill other people. Right or wrong, I felt compelled to tell him that there had been 40 something school shootings since the beginning of the year. I didn’t want to instill fear but I wanted him to think about the meaning and intent behind the types of actions he was playing out.
He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head letting me know he understood. Without a direct mandate to stop, it was only a matter of minutes before he and his brother were back at it in the yard. Soon after, I watched Kallen get his brother to the ground. Balancing on one leg, he lightly placed his other foot on his brother’s side pressing the toy gun to Kasen’s temple in an act of victory. Pschew… Pshew…, he said with an exaggerated kick back that sent his wrist flying toward his head.
I can’t say for sure why but watching this scene play out took my breath away. In an instant, through his pretend actions, I could see, hear and feel the dark places from which such non-play behavior emerges. I considered momentarily, the extent of subsequent trauma to all parties whose lives have careened with gun violence. Witnessing their play in that moment was haunting. Imaginably, because in his lifetime, Kallen could feel so angry, sad, lonely, desperate, threatened or afraid that gun violence would somehow seem an option. Maybe it is simply unnerving to see one of your children try to hurt another even if it is pretend. Perhaps it is because even in the face of my conversation with Kallen, there was understandably, no real sense of his own behavior, its unforeseen political ramifications or the tangible consequences of those actions. I also considered that Kallen could possess the skills to become an amazing actor…
Evocatively, the perspective of folks loved and admired, from near and far, past and present were in attendance with me for the theatrics on the porch that morning, at least in my head. Sharing how they have handled these situations, how they were currently handling them, have in the past or would if they had kids. I tried to imagine where other parents whom I admired stood on this issue. I realized I hadn’t had many explicit conversations with other parents about gun play. Though, I likely could guess where on a continuum most of them would fall.
Admittedly, I struggled with what to do. Manage my own anxiety and let them play or redirect their behavior repeatedly for the next 30 minutes to an hour…? I wondered about the values lesson in either of those approaches. What is the moral and political lesson I would be teaching? Would restricting their play make them want to engage in aggressive play more? Does it support or perpetuate violence either in ideology or action? Does it make light of or disrespect the reality many kids in America live out daily. Could extreme rules around gun play perpetuate the sweeping of gun violence under a rug or serve to further glorify violence in our society?
As I watched our boys wrestle & laugh and leap around the yard some words came into my head spoken the previous week at the Dean’s Installation as recipient of the Robert A. and Mildred Peronia Naslund Dean’s Chair in the School of Education at the University of Redlands. Andrew Wall had given an inspiring speech that culminated in a plea to consider the radical middle where both/and thinking exists as opposed to either/or. Dean Wall was discussing the merits of such an approach, using both the head and the heart, in leading the field of education in innovative and transformational ways.
Sitting on the porch swing, it came out of nowhere, like the unexpected individual that appears from around the corner as you walk on auto piolet from point A to point B, completely lost in thought. It startled me but there it was, “I invite you to engage in the radical middle.” Not even 10 minutes later, the boys were heading inside after explaining that they were going to be making and practicing a play. As I sat in a few rare moments of silence I found myself contemplating parenting from the radical middle.
That space where I acknowledge and then manage my own fears and insecurities, trust my gut and gently thank the many perspectives occupying my head. Without stifling the innocence or imagination of my boys who may, themselves, be looking for a way, through their play, to process and make sense of the things they are seeing and learning. That space where I describe and talk with my son about the struggle of the head and the heart without giving into the “boys will be boys” end of the continuum where vigorous play is synonymous with being a male child.
A space where most of the time I am completely unsure of what to do next but fight to embrace the moment regardless. It can often seem easier to live on the edges of the right/wrong either/or continuum, where absolutes and truths exist. Often though, as you know, it is not as simple as right or wrong. Where we know we know the answer and can safely justify and assert our beliefs. This is in stark contrast to, the radical middle; where we merely need acknowledge the discomfort of not knowing and the deep desire to.
I entered the house, completely unnoticed, to check on the boys ensuring their play hadn’t escalated. They lay entangled in one another’s superhero outfitted limbs in a heap on top the couch and playing Roller Coaster Tycoon on the IPad. The moment had passed, attention shifted; masks pulled off to reveal flushed sweaty faces.
I wonder, be it parenting or gun control, if we have left room to question, explore, learn from others, grow beyond our personal and collective history, reconsider what we know or don’t, cohabitate with both the head and the heart to engage in the radical middle! I imagine we must first trust ourselves to inhabit the ethereal places that haunt us and face that which takes our breath away, that place that exists smack dab in the middle. That awkward, ambivalent place where we are free to acknowledged what we don’t know and can gain a deeper understanding for the perspectives of others. I would argue, that somewhere there, in the radical middle, is where we will find our greatest capacity for empathy and understanding.
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Alliance for Community Transformation and Wellness:http://www.redlands.edu/academics/school-of-education/20180.aspx