My older son peered through the blinds into our back yard, but made no move to join his friends.
His homework was finished and he was free to play until supper time. Yet, the Monday afternoon soccer game went on without him.
“Aren’t you going outside?” I said.
He turned away from the sliding glass door and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Not today. I just don’t want to.”
Strange. He loves to play outside. I knew why this time was different.
“Is it because of the Nerf gun thing?” I said.
“A little bit,” he said.
He turned back to the sliding glass door and peered out at his friends playing soccer in our back yard. He wanted to be out there playing, too. Instead, he watched from the cover of the blinds.
The Nerf gun thing. In our neighborhood, Nerf foam dart gun battles rage almost daily. There are Nerf assault rifles, Nerf sniper rifles, Nerf blasters, Nerf cross bows, Nerf cannons. The neighborhood lawns are littered with discharged and forgotten Nerf darts.
I don’t like Nerf foam dart guns. I don’t like guns, period. I don’t like watching kids pretend to shoot each other. I worry that they might become inured to violence, and I worry that a blue or orange Nerf dart might strike one of my kids or a neighbor kid in the eye and cause permanent damage.
Naturally, our kids have about a half-dozen Nerf guns.
We allow them to participate in these neighborhood foam dart battles, with the stipulation that they wear the protective goggles that came with one of their Nerf gun sets and that they don’t aim the Nerf guns at other kids’ heads.
The Nerf gun thing that kept my son inside peering through the blinds instead of running around outside on the brown winter grass had its origins in a bicycle race over the weekend. A race my son lost to two other kids, both of whom are older, bigger, stronger and faster than my third grader.
Before that bike race around the block, one of the older kids – a good kid, a kid we know – announced that the race loser would be subjected to an undefended barrage of Nerf darts shot at him point-blank by the other two race participants.
In essence: a Nerf gun firing squad.
Our son told us Sunday night about his scheduled next-day “punishment” for losing the bike race. His mom and I told him there would be no Nerf gun firing squad. He would have to tell the other kids it’s not going to happen.
We left it at that, but we both woke up thinking about it the next morning. My wife called me on her way to work and we talked about it.
Was this a case of bullying behavior? Was it just “kids being kids?” How can parents tell the difference? What should we do about it?
In the moment, shortly after he informed us about the kid-manufactured consequences of losing that bike race, we told our son to stand up to the other boys if they tried to get him to “take his punishment.”
But were we sure he knew how to do that?
My wife and I decided that it wasn’t a case of repetitive bullying behavior, based on what we know about the kids involved and our son’s relationship with them. These kids are a grade or two ahead of our son, but we know them. They’re generally nice kids, not mean-spirited, and our son enjoys their company.
Still, it’s not easy to say no to friends. We wanted to make sure our son was equipped with the words he needed to gracefully minimize a potential conflict and prevent a potential long-term rift with his buddies. She and I talked about it and, together, made a plan of action we could suggest to him if it came up.
Back at the blinds, our son was of two minds as he peered out: He longed to go out outside and play, but did not want to be shot at with Nerf dart guns.
I said, “You can go outside if you want to. Those guys might not even remember the bike race. But if they do, and they say something to you, do you know what to do?”
He nodded and said, “Yeah, come back inside.”
His expression told me he wouldn’t be happy with that outcome, so I was glad his mother and I had come up with a suggestion.
“Well, sure, you could do that,” I said. “Or you could look right at them and say, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to stand here and let you shoot me with Nerf guns. Let’s just play soccer.’”
Then I said, “Let me know if that doesn’t work.”
He thought about it for a few seconds, then reached for his fleece pullover.
“OK,” he said. “I’m going outside.”
I resisted the temptation to watch him through the blinds. I’m not against keeping a close eye on my kids, but this was one time I felt like he needed some space. I figured if he needed me, he’d come get me.
An hour later, he came in for supper. I asked him as casually as I could if the Nerf gun thing had come up. He said it had.
“Oh?” I said. “And what happened?”
“I told them it was just nonsense and to keep playing soccer,” he said.
I smiled and repeated, “Nonsense?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I forgot the other word you told me, but I like nonsense better, anyway.”
I told him I liked it better, too, and asked how his friends had taken it.
“We just started playing soccer again,” he said.
I told him I was proud of him.
I liked that he was not intimidated by his older friends into going along with a bad idea.
I liked that he found the fortitude to face his apprehension.
I liked that he accepted – and improved upon – the plan of action his mother and I devised to help him.
I loved that our son learned something about his own strength of will. And, even though he lost that bike race, he defeated his own uncertainty and managed a difficult situation with words and with grace.
17 thoughts on “Nerf Guns and Nonsense”
Good job with the parenting:) Interesting point about the line between bullying and kids being kids. I’m going to file this away to use when my kids get older. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Kyle. Glad you liked it.
There isn’t a fuzzy line here. Bullying is done with intent to do both physical and emotional harm for the gratification of the attackers. It is physically and emotionally damaging and often deadly. This is a bunch of friends with a playful bargain. His friends would not have taken pleasure in causing him pain. They did not want to see him bleed. You will know when it is bullying.
Wendy, with due respect, no — it is not always as easy as you seem to think it is to detect bullying activity. I would refer you and anyone else with questions to this website: http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html Thank you for reading.
agree with Kyle about the line – I remember being a boy and the endless teasing, etc. we did to each other. 95% was good natured but I’ll keep this in mind for when my son is a bit older too.
Very nice Carter. I’d like to think I would have done the same thing… well…. except I definitely would have peered out the window! ;P
Very nice post, Carter. I’d like to think I would react the same way. Measured, thoughtful, and with poise, concern and love. Your boy sounds like he takes after his old man. Shared this on Ask Your Dad.
Thank you, sir.
Love the burden and your struggle with what to do. Does your son learn a lesson about entering into a bad contract, or does he avoid physical harm with the blessing of his guardians? Thanks for writing this Carter.
[This is just a random comment, not about parenting or anything of substance, so it should probably be deleted!]
This reminds me of the time when I was about 10 or 11 … when my “best friend” who was also a few years older than me invented a tree climbing game.
A tree would be spotted, and I would be sent to climb the tree. After a set time period, the “grounder” would then shoot the “climber” with a hand-pumped BB gun. Of course, I had no idea that he was going to get his BB gun until I was up the tree. I never told my parents about this, though I did tell his father after I got stung a few times!
What was my point with this trip down memory lane. Sometimes kids are going to be kids. I hope I can protect my son from all the stupid things I did, but I know that he will have some of his own “stupid” stories twenty, thirty years from now.
Hindsight …. Thank G-d no one really got hurt. Besides a few years later, I got him back for all the antics he pulled on me.
You sir are a master story teller. Such a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Justin. See you in SF at Dad 2.0!
A heart warming story! Love it!
Very cool. What a powerful thing to experience, both for your son, and for his parents. I feel daunted imagining how I’ll prompt my daughter in similar situations, but clearly, positive and mature outcomes are possible.
Thank you, Neal. It was very nice meeting you in San Francisco.
That’s a great article, sir. Excellent parenting. You definitely did the right thing here. Not to be funny, but those little Nerf darts actually do sting quite a bit if you’re hit with one at a close enough range. So his Nerf firing squad definitely would have hurt. I’m also glad to see you make the kids wear the Nerf Vision Gear safety goggles, that’s a very important safety issue. The eye is the worst place you can get hit, and while I’m not sure it’d cause permanent damage, it would definitely hurt for a while. Thanks for the article. Take care.
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