My son Drew loves Ninjas. He loves army guys, zombies, and angry birds. He can sit on our living room couch in front of the picture window, the sun bathing his back and his little legs stretched out in front of him, for an hour straight, playing video games on his Mini iPad. When the thrill of the game courses through him like an electric current, his whole body tightens and quivers as though it’s straining unbearably to contain the pain of his excitement. In these games, tiny marching knights detonate castles and one another; soldiers, pigs, winged creatures explode into blood, drown, get crushed by falling debris, knock themselves unconscious. Yes, you are right—these are the games that may be leading boys into basement living, flunking out of college, and even worse, violent behavior.
Andrew and I have always allowed Drew to explore a variety of computer games, not worrying so much about their impact on our physically small, mild-tempered child’s psychological integrity. We also permit him to play with toy swords and guns. I tend to agree with my mother-the-social-worker’s theory: Let a boy indulge his Freudian associations between guns and male virility so he won’t grow up repressed and likely to act out in less desirable ways. Drew has never acted aggressively toward another child, and he has never expressed frustration or fury at home outside of expected limits. He doesn’t throw things (including footballs and baseballs, half the time, much to Andrew’s chagrin), and he doesn’t destroy anyone’s belongings. We did hear that his teacher had asked him not to speak so animatedly about guns at school. Fortunately, Drew has obliged. I tend not to be a worrier and to project a slew of horrible things that could happen if we let our kids play in the front yard without us, climb up on the counter to rummage around in the cupboards, eat Honey Nut rather than Multigrain Cheerios, take the bus to school. If I did, I would be living in a constant state of paralysis.
Recently, I have found myself trying to win a mild battle of justification in my head over many reasons to sanitize Drew’s iPad apps. However, I’m not sure that I’m ready to give into what seems to be the easy answer to saving my son from potentially developing malice toward the world. When Drew plays these games, he wants desperately for his father to sit with him to keep him company and give him guidance. Some mornings, Andrew will emerge from the Master bathroom to find Drew standing just outside, holding his screen and waiting patiently for his gaming buddy. Other times, when Andrew is at work and I’m Drew’s only playmate option, he offers to show me how to navigate Temple Run or Swordigo. (He grows only marginally impatient with my cluelessness.) He loves the idea that he has conquered a particular strategy or skill to accomplish an objective, whether it’s slashing a spider or racking up gold coins to buy better digital war paraphernalia. He roots for only the good guys. In fact, he denied my invitation to buy him Darth Vader and Stormtrooper Hanna Andersson pajamas because he didn’t want his wardrobe to advertise an alliance with the wrong side. Drew seems to be satisfying his fascination with combat and weapons in a—well, er—healthful way…if there’s any such thing.
A few months ago, when I began to mull over multiple options for Drew’s 5th birthday party in March, I happened upon a venue in Burlington called GuardUp!, which holds classes in sword and fencing techniques. This school offers birthday parties of any theme, including “Medieval Knights” and “Jedi Training.” Well, bust my buttons! I thought cheerfully. If there’s a whole school dedicated to instructing children in the skills of swordsmanship, then Drew’s affinity for warfare can’t be terribly disturbing! I called right up and booked an introductory free lesson. How would Drew fare, wielding a pretend sword with other weapon-bearing children around? How would Drew follow directions though the adrenaline of the hunt would be pulsing urgently in every one of his extremities? Essentially, how would the violence of his computer games translate to his interaction with real people?
At Guard Up!, a young man in his early twenties—we’ll call him Jay—led a class of five children, probably between the ages of four and six, with more patience and understanding of firm limit-setting than I have seen in parents fifteen years older. This clan of budding knights confirmed all over again my wisdom in choosing a career in high school, rather than preschool, teaching. Imagine a warehouse-like gymnasium sectioned off into pods for various classes that run simultaneously. The equipment for the Little Knights class consisted of mats, interlocking pads (like the alphabet squares that you used to lay down on your floor when your child was a toddler), ropes, extra-skinny pool noodles for a game called “Sea Monster,” and a kitchen trash barrel full of sturdy foam swords.
Jay: Okay. Everybody please sit down on the red line, and we’ll talk about what games we’re going to play today. Yes, Kevin?
Kevin: I don’t like this sword.
Jay: You’re sword’s fine. It’s a great sword.
Kevin: It’s too heavy.
Jay: But it’s your special sword that you earned from being in the class for a long time.
Kevin: Yeah. I want a different one.
Jay [sighing]: All right. Go get a different one. We’re—yes, Sam?
Sam: I learned a new game this weekend from my cousin that I want to tell you about.
Jay: Okay. What is it? Maybe we can play it at the end of class.
Sam: It’s called “Warrior Chimp Chimp Dragon Eagle.” There’s a warrior, and there are chimps, and there’s a dragon, and—and—
Jay: An eagle?
Sam: Yeah! Right! And the warrior has these two chimps that help him get the dragon and the eagle, and if the warrior and the chimps tap the dragon three times and the eagle four times, on the front AND on the back, and the dragon and the eagle don’t run to the pretend river and jump in, they don’t get to come back in the game, and they have to sit on a rock, but not the dragon ’cause he goes in a cave, and then a peacock comes along and sets the dragon and the eagle free by saying, “Whee! Whee! You are free!”
Jay: Oh, I see. All right. It sounds a little complicated, but maybe—
Sam: Wait! I almost forgot! And there are fish that are jumping in the river, and if the eagle can catch one, he—
Jay: I’m sure we can adapt the game to our class a little later. Now, I think we’ll start with the Castle Hunt. What do you say about—um, Teddy? Can you come back to the red line, please?
Teddy [wandering away]: Why?
Jay: Because in class, we all sit on the red line and listen carefully so that we can follow directions and know what to do. Come back and sit, please.
Teddy: My uncle just bought a Jaguar.
David: A jaguar?
Teddy: It’s a car.
Jay: Okay, Teddy, that’s cool, but we can talk about your uncle’s new car later. Can you—Teddy? Do I need to go to the waiting room and get your father? Come back to the red line, please. All right.
[Felicity, dressed in sequined fairy wings, a fuzzy cat-eared headband, and a fuzzy cat tail, leaps up in impromptu joy and starts bouncing like a pogo stick.]
Jay: Felicity, can you just sit down for one more minute? Thanks. Okay. So, Castle Hunt is when…Teddy? Why are you lying on your stomach in the corner?
Teddy [churning an index finger around and around in his left nostril]: Hmmm?
Jay: If you don’t sit up, I’ll have to go get your father.
Teddy: Are we getting gold reward coins at the end?
Jay [pauses]: We’ll see how things go.
Teddy: I’ll just get them from the closet.
In the midst of this compromised start to the class, my little friend Drew was, well, not quite on the red line (his rear end tended to drift off of it with every jubilant swipe of his foam sword), but certainly not disrupting the teacher’s agenda or egging on his distractible peers. So far, so good.
The structured activities finally began. I actually found it fairly impressive that most of the children, once they got going, followed the rules of the games and maneuvered their swords with relative reservation and grace. Drew, I noted, watched the others carefully just as much as he joined in, gauging the boundaries of play before striking out on his own. At first, he hovered mostly around Jay. He liked to sneak up behind the big brother figure, his sword raised, mouth open in glee, and whack him directly on the backside. As the games wore on, Drew branched out to engage with Jay’s assistant, a tall, quiet teenager named Wendy. At one point, Wendy turned around to find Drew lurking at her side, and he swung his sword across her chest: THUNK. (I could hear the contact clearly from my place on the red line.) “Umpf,” she said, and once she had caught her breath again, patted Drew on the shoulder. “A little less hard next time, okay, buddy?” Drew took the criticism in stride and moved on, even rescuing his peers who had been sent to the “eagle’s nest” in the altered version of Sam’s “Warrior Chimp Chimp Dragon Eagle,” and charming them enough to be rescued right back when necessary. Yay, Drew! My sweet, darling boy was still my sweet, darling boy with a weapon in his hand! I was beginning to relax.
The most crucial test occurred, however, when Drew brandished his sword on Teddy—maybe a little too energetically, or maybe in a sensitive spot, or maybe at all—and Teddy lapsed into dramatic whimpering. I didn’t see the moment of impact, but when I looked up to the sound of Drew’s trembling voice saying “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry! I’m sorry,” and holding his hand over Teddy’s, I knew that at least for the time being, I could consider all of my worries about his forming an unnatural urge to inflict pain on others unfounded. Honestly, I was more concerned about Teddy’s reaction to Drew’s accidentally offensive move. I held my breath as I anticipated Teddy’s comeback. Thankfully, after a long thirty seconds or so of theatrics, he calmed down and stepped away from Drew. He started to collect the interlocking pads that Jay had spread on the floor for the Castle Hunt at the beginning of class, only to draw Jay to his heels to reprimand him for not doing what he was supposed to be doing…again. Drew bopped off, apparently saved.
“Drew, that was nice of you to apologize to Teddy,” I said to him a few minutes later during a water break.
“What? What?” Drew was dancing with his sword.
“You know, when you hit Teddy by accident? You told him very nicely that you were sorry.”
“Oh. Yeah, yeah, right!”
In his own world, that one.
We booked Drew’s 5th birthday party at Guard Up! that evening. I drove home, my innocent son munching away on Cheez-Its in his booster in the backseat, and my insecurities as a mom temporarily at bay.