Little Harry blinks at me through his heavy Sellotaped glasses. "What's that for?"
"It's a submachine gun," I say. "It fires lots of bullets." I mime. "Bang bang bang!"
I'm helping out on a school trip. Normally I avoid volunteering - it's too easy for self employed parents to end up as the school's go-to. However this visit is to
So here I am helping to herd 5-year olds through the military museum. Morgenstern is nowhere in sight, but little Harry has latched onto me.
"Oh," says Harry. He copies my mime and sprays the room. "Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang."
"Not like that," I say. "Three round bursts or you'll run out of bullets. Plus the thing pulls up." I mime. "So like this: Bang bang bang!... Bang bang bang!"
Solemnly, Harry discharges three imaginary bullets. "Bang bang bang!"
"Right," I say, "Now, the other side have guns too. You have to use cover... better if you have a hand grenade, of course."
His blue eyes widen. "What's a hand grenade?"
So together we have a great time clearing each gallery with imagined grenade, automatic fire and bayonet.
Later on the way back to the bus Harry says, "My Daddy says wars are bad because people get killed..."
Yes, I had in fact spent the afternoon teaching (my best recollection of) World War Two house clearing tactics to the son of a local clergyman and peace activist.
* * *
In my defence, that's pretty much how I've raised both my kids ever since I was shocked to catch a 4-year-old Kurtzhau running across open ground going, "Drrrrrrrrr!"
Kurtzhau seemed so horribly vulnerable and I had just received these Osprey WWII Infantry Tactics books and it turned out that he and his friends quite liked following the diagrams...
Which of course takes us to how very uncomfortable most middle class parents are when their children - mostly, but not exclusively the boys - start playing at war, first with toy guns (or sticks or anything they can find), and then with video games.
We hate to imagine our kids as adults getting hurt, we are twitchy when our blond haired darlings cheerfully contemplate bayoneting Germans, and - perhaps most of all - it seems in very poor taste when there's so much real death and violence in the world.
And yet after something like fifty years of peacenik parenting, Tom Clancy is still rich, Baen Books are doing fine, Bernard Cornwell is still in print, and first person shooters still top the video game charts.
It follows that parents can have little or no effect on whether kids - or the adults they become - want to play at war or read about it.
The flipside is that - anecdotally - playing at war as a kid seems to have little or no impact on adult politics or life choices. I also note that the 50s, when jingoistic war films were the norm and everybody grew up refighting WWII in their backyard, gave birth to the 60s and its anti-militarist counter culture.
Some people want to treat violent video games as a special category, threatening to society. Grossman makes a good argument that first person shooters may make people better at going on the rampage (and the
Really we're seeing "moral entrepreneurs" exploiting feelings of cooties and confirmation bias. It's like back during the Dungeons and Dragons Moral Panic (go read my review of a book on this over at Black Gate, which - by the way - won a World Fantasy Award this year) when law enforcement would routinely fish out the Players Handbook from the bedrooms of teen suicides and spree shooters and blame that - and Satan, of course - rather than, say, troubled teens having easy access to firearms. Certainly the two highprofile
It follows that if you have a messed up angry alienated teen who balances his (and it will be a boy - toxic masculinity for the win!) time between misogynist tweeting and playing video games, you should probably (a) try to deal with his feelings, and (b) keep him away from firearms and big sharp blades.
The rest of us parents have the thankfully simpler problem of what do about kids, war toys, books and violent video games.
I think our objective as parents should be to create happy, moral adults who can function and reach their full potential in modern society.
The world would certainly be a better place with less war in it. However, it's not clear that censoring the games and imagination of my kids would in any way help make that happen. (You could even make the argument that more people with progressive values should make an effort to understand military matters.)
As you might guess, I'm therefore not very interested in any kind of statement parenting, nor am I keen to deploy my kids as the shock troops of the progressive millennium. The tiny chance of making a tiny difference would not be worth the cost.
Because there is a cost in mandating a pacifist childhood, and it's threefold:
First, you're making it harder for your kid to fit in.
"A pox on fitting in!" you say. "A child should learn stand up for their principals."
However, really these are your principals you're making your child stand up for.
And if a child doesn't fit in, they don't get to join in. They don't get the sandbox they need to learn all those useful social skills, including the moral ones of standing up for principals in real situations such as when bullying is going on, or somebody takes steals something, or just gets too rough.
You also miss out on all the other healthy wholesome activities that take place under the guise of playing at war, e.g. working as a team online, or building tanks out of cardboard boxes, or bases and forts in the woods, or just climbing around in the garden going, "Bang!".
But I talked about all that last time (link).
Second, in resisting a child's interest, you're missing the opportunity to help them learn from it.
The elephant in the room is literacy skills.
People still whinge that "boys don't read" (and yes, this is mainly a gendered problem, for now) and then hand them a diet of prize winning lyrical stories about social issues and sharing, or else zany fart orientated comedy. Of course these do engage, but only a proportion of the audience.
Children, like adults, have their own preferred genres and it seems odd - perverse - to expect the kids who'll grow up to read Simon Scarrow or David Weber, and who go home to play Halo or Call of Duty, to want to settle down to Michael Morpurgo's liesurely plotting.
As it stands, it is stupidly difficult to get realistic children's books about soldiers and soldiering. Of the classics, only Rosemary Sutcliff gets past the filters, but you can still find second hand copies of Ronald Welch's excellent "young officer finds his feet while experiencing the tragedy of war in a variety of settings" stories. The modern but little known books by Jim Eldridge, a former soldier, are good, and boosted Kurtzhau's reading age overnight... especially the Black Ops series.
I think it's a bit like sex education: if kids can't read realistic books about soldiers, they get their ideas from odd places like computer games!
The same goes for parental attitude.
If you ignore or censor their interests, you miss the opportunity to help them understand not just the hazards of war, but the moral issues around it:
"Glad you had fun playing laser tag; how many times did you die?"
"Why is it important to take prisoners and not just shoot people?"
"What does collateral damage really mean? Is it ever justified?"
If you engage with their interest, you can also help them toward appreciating and understanding the context, most obviously the history and politics, but also the life lessons to be learned from the decision making and engineering, for example the parable of the Panther and the T34 (tldr: "Good enough now is sometimes better than perfect, later.")
You can even view stories about soldiers and soldiering as workplace adventures, since most of them hinge on office politics and team building.
And, in this context, the violent video games are just another learning tool, for all that they are also fun and a way to let off steam.
The third cost is more nebulous: imagined agency.
Children don't have a lot of real agency, and, not only is it hard for a child to imagine modern adult agency, it's also not very exciting.
One of the reasons action stories are compelling is that the main conflict is explicit and easy to grasp, and character agency simple and tangible: you know who Sharpe is struggling with because they are trying to kill each other; and you know he has agency because he has a unit of men, a rifle, and that big French cavalry sword.
It's just much much easier to play soldiers in the garden, than aid worker, doctor or even adventurer. After a certain age, a child can only spend so long pretending to climb a mountain or pushing through the jungle undergrowth, but they can spend an entire afternoon enjoying a running skirmish, especially if they have those cool laser tag guns that actually track hits.
If you take away the plastic gun (with it's don't-shoot-me orange cap), ban Call of Duty, and censor books with guns and explosions on the cover, then -- to me -- it feels like you're saying, Don't imagine making important decisions, balancing risks, or being proactive.
* * *
If you don't mandate a pacifist childhood, then you still have to have some kind of policy. For what it's worth, we have evolved the following de facto rules for imaginative play, books and video games:
- Nothing where you just run round going "bang" - no character shields, you must respect the imagined hazards.
- No war crimes (including especially torture and shooting civilians) or being a criminal.
- No racism or misogyny (unless it's the bad guys doing it - as Kurtzhau put it when playing one of the Bioshock games, "Shooting racists is good, right Dad?")
- No contemporary military settings - at least until the child is old enough to understand the real context and, most importantly, not spout off about the campaign in public, thus causing offense to veterans and real soldiers, or their loved ones.
- If anything gives you nightmares, that's your problem. Please don't wake us up.
- We buy and wear Red Poppies and think about what that means.
It is of course possible we are bad parents. There are also other ways of handling all this. What's your experience? Where do you stand?
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")