Yesterday, I took my nine-year-old son to the video arcade at the local mall. He wanted to play any game that involved shooting someone or something. I hadn’t been to the video arcade since I was a teenager, so I was shocked to find so many realistic video games where the goal is to kill another human being. Fathers and sons fed their electronic game cards to the machines (they no longer accept quarters), shooting away, bonding as each looked to the other and smiled before wasting a “terrorist” or two or twenty in a bloody shootout. My son wanted to play, but I was appalled. I tried to get him interested in shooting dinosaurs instead. It worked for a short time, but in the end, he wanted to play the “real” games. I gave in and soon felt the kick of the machine gun recoil in my chest as I mowed down the terrorists (each bearded and colored just enough to look Muslim). My son was killed pretty quickly, but beamed at me, proud that I was able to survive a little longer.
For Christmas two weeks ago, my son wanted a Nerf Diatron. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a gun that shoots two Nerf discs at once. The latest technology in Nerf warfare. My son already has the other guns in the Nerf arsenal: the Vortex, the Nitron, the Vigilon, and (best of all) the Pyragon. Nerf gun wars erupt in our house spontaneously, causing our two German Shepherds to bark uncontrollably and the two kittens to run for cover. The only rule is no shooting in the face. Unfortunately, that’s what inevitably happens. I get very uncomfortable when my son aims his gun at my face. I tell him in no uncertain terms to put it down. I tell him the game is over. And yet, when I sneak up on him defenseless, hiding behind the couch, I unleash my bullets at point blank range with a glee I haven’t felt since childhood. In those moments, he looks at me as if I’ve betrayed him.
My son joined Karate about four months ago. He loves it. When not in practice, he spends a good part of his time running around the house, kicking and karate chopping everything. The day they broke boards in his dojo may have been the high point of his life. That’s the day they tested for their belts. I had to hold back my judgment as I watched each student work through routines designed to beat the hell out of another living person. Some of the candidates for the higher belts were deadly serious as they performed their Katas. At the end, they had open sparring. The students wore headgear and gloves as they punched and kicked each other. My son is convinced he’s going to be the next Bruce Lee. I told myself it wasn’t so bad that he tried to kick another kid in the face. I forced myself to smile and clap when he performed actions designed to hurt or maim his opponent.
Because I’ve been an avid fencer most of my life, I tried to get my son involved in the sport of fencing about a year ago. He was interested in sabre at first, and I would drive him once a week to the club in Columbus where he could practice with kids his age. I remember the first time he suited up. I took a picture of him. I still have that picture. I look at it often, and each time it gives me a thrill. To see him posing with his mask and sword. He has since moved on to Karate, but I still hope to get him back into fencing. I dream of the day when he and I can travel to a fencing tournament together, when I can watch him fight another kid, trying to hit that kid in the head with his sword. Fencers scream when they hit, as do people in the other martial arts. I’ve often wondered what my son’s scream would be like. Would it be relatively tame? Or would it let slip the killer inside?
Why is it I abhor the violence in one scenario and encourage it in another? What makes the simulated act of shooting “terrorists” in a video game any different than the simulated act of shooting each other with Nerf guns? Is hitting someone with your fist really more violent than hitting someone with a sword? One could easily argue it’s the other way around. The sword a grim symbol of our barbaric past. And yet I frown upon one behavior and encourage another. Talk about sending mixed signals! I consider myself a passive person. I believe violence is a last resort, what happens when all other options fail. Contrary to the evidence given above, my wife and I raised our son without TV, video games, or violent toys. We gave in a few years ago only when the mounting evidence became clear that none of what we did mattered. Regardless of our “guidance,” he spent the vast majority of his day creating games where he killed someone or was killed by someone. The boy should be given an academy award for the complexity of his death scenes, drawn out in slow motion as he careens about the living room. My fear is that some day he’ll enlist in the military, that he’ll become something I’m fundamentally against. My greater fear is that in doing so he’ll become more like me than he ever was before.
I thought this essay was going to be about the ways in which our children are not like us, the ways in which the apple sometimes falls very far from the tree. I started with that experience at the video arcade, sure of my horror over how easily my son lapped up the violence, and my revulsion at how many other fathers and sons stood beside us, smilingly shooting away. But as I started writing, I realized something else was going on. The essay shaped itself around the complicated ways in which as fathers we both indoctrinate our sons into male violence and simultaneously teach them that same violence is wrong. More disturbing to this author was the further discovery that the essay wanted to move into how those parts we most abhor in our children are really the things we fear in ourselves. I say this now only because as writers our essays, our stories, our books are also our children. We want them to be certain things, to behave certain ways. How rarely they do. Yet we seldom talk about what this means. Instead, we make vague statements like: “I followed where the story went,” or “I let he character lead me” as if the story, the character are really separate entities from us. They are not. And the twisting turns they take, the conflicted messages they reveal say more about our own messy lives than we’d like to think.