As I sit at my kitchen table, a war is raging above me. I hear screams and shouts, shots ringing out and the crashing of debris - no doubt collateral damage.
I do not live in the West Bank or Chechnya but in relatively peaceful Toronto. Still, there has been a battle going on upstairs in my house for close to 45 minutes.
All the soldiers involved in this war seem content to keep fighting. I hear no suggestions being made for a ceasefire or peace talks. No one has even come crying down the stairs to find me, requiring a kiss to mend their wounds. No, the soldiers upstairs are tough and happy to keep on battling until someone gets bored or grossly injured.
Perhaps this is what naturally happens when four little boys, ranging in age from 3 to 5, get together for a play date.
It may come as a surprise, but there are no toy guns in my house. Okay, okay. We have two small, orange-and-green plastic water guns covered in Lightning McQueen stickers, but other than that, no guns.
We do, however, have sticks, markers, plastic hammers and, yes, thumbs and fingers. My eldest, who is 5, even made himself a gun out of building blocks, but it's actually big enough to be considered an anti-aircraft weapon.
Almost every day, one or both of my sons will approach me and ask in their sweet baby voices, "Mommy, do you know where my gun is?"
I invariably reply that I do not and that I hope they are not shooting at anybody who doesn't want to be shot at.
"No, no," they reply. "We're shooting the bad guys."
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Sometimes they are shooting bears, and I have suggested a few times that they should tranquilize the bears and then conduct research to make sure the species is thriving. They like to practise saying "tranquilize," but apparently simply shooting the bears is still more fun.
I have wondered where this love of guns and shooting comes from. Neither I nor my husband has ever gone hunting, but it does not stop my five-year-old from announcing to his kindergarten teacher every once in a while that, "Today is hunting day!" He has one of those checked red-and-black coats that hunters seem to wear, and he went through a period where he loved The Fox and the Hound. Perhaps that is enough.
Recently, at our local park, my sons built an entire war setting in the sandbox. They used little pieces of sticks as soldiers. "Bang, bang," they shouted at each other for about 30 minutes. I don't think a winner had been declared when I finally dragged them home. Perhaps having a much-loved uncle in the armed forces is enough to bring on this passion for war.
Now that the two of them have discovered Transformers and the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, I foresee this love of guns and play killing lasting a long time.
People have told me it is natural for little boys to love playing with guns and acting out wars. They insist my children will not grow up to be warmongering ruffians. Play fighting is how kids learn to figure out right from wrong, and I should be grateful that at least they usually pretend to kill the bad guys and not the good ones.
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But with shrieks of, "Quick! Shoot them!" and "Bang, bang! You're dead!" piercing my ears, I find myself wondering if this fascination with fighting is an inherent part of humanity. We are forever telling our children to be gentle, share, play nicely. "Not so rough," we say, again and again. It's as though a battle spark ignites as soon as our children leave the womb, and all we can do is try to dampen the flames as they grow.
I don't consider myself a cynic, but I do think peace on Earth is just a concept, unattainable in reality. When I see a little boy point his finger at another and shout, "I killed you! You're dead!" I can't help but think no wonder there are so many wars going on in our world. No wonder there are so many weapons continually being made, traded, bought and sold. No wonder there is no meaningful push to end some of the military conflicts that have been going on for so many years.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch said something about having to walk around in another person's skin to understand their motives and actions. I have attempted to have a discussion with my sons about how they know whether someone is good or bad and the concepts of perspective and point of view, but 3 and 5 is a bit young to understand ideas that millions of adults can't seem to grasp.
Still, I will continue to try to explain these concepts to them and make them find empathy with the other side, and when they are old enough or when it matters enough to them, I hope they will understand.
Until then, I will live with "Bang, bang! You're dead!" and be grateful that I live in a country and a neighbourhood where I can be worried about my sons playing war, and not actually fighting in one.
Hayley Linfield lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Catherine Lepage.
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