this post is the chapter i contributed to the book just moms: conveying justice in an unjust world. to read the other thoughtful chapters revolving around the challenges and joys of raising empathic, social justice minded children, you can order the book here: http://www.barclaypressbookstore.com/Just-Moms.html
Doreen Dodgen-Magee is the mother of Connor and Kaija and wife of Thomas. She relishes celebrating people and collecting unique experiences. A psychologist in private practice, she maintains a busy public-speaking docket and is passionate about empowering people to live countercultural, relationally rich lives.
Her insights on the impact of technology on families can be found at doreendm.com.
TWELVE, and full of seventh-grade machismo, Connor hopped in the van after school with a mind full of ideas and a mouth full of plans. Sharing excitedly about his day, his diatribe ended with, “And all the guys and I have been talking, and I know what I want to do with my allowance. There’s a new airsoft gun I want to buy.” In a flash I became angry and agitated. Airsoft guns, which are realistic-looking guns that shoot small, round pellets and are used by middle school and high school boys to play “war,” were all the rage at the time. Any gathering of boys was sure to be peppered with talk of models of such guns and descriptions of face masks and other padding made to protect one from the inevitable bruises that come with a good backyard battle.
We had discussed “airsofting” at length in our home by this time. Connor had made a case for buying a gun and we, very reluctantly, let him use his own money to purchase one—with several clear stipulations. One: The gun could not look real. (He chose a clear plastic model with bright-colored insides, like a crazy water gun. It met our criteria.) Two: He could only use the toy when we approved of the people with whom he was playing. Three: We were not willing to tolerate this activity becoming an object of his obsession. The gun and one package of pellets would be his limit. We were not willing to entertain further pleading or incessant talk about the newest and most advanced guns, accessories, or strategies for “fighting.” And the stipulation supreme: We wanted to hear from him, as he engaged with this activity, how he aligned his desire to play war with his self-proclaimed pacifistic ideals. For me, this was the most important issue, and I wanted it addressed sooner rather than later.
Weeks passed and Connor fought a few battles. Bruises marking where he’d been hit healed, and still, nothing about his views on pacifism and airsoft guns changed. He just didn’t see the connection, he said. He was just playing a game, no different from the board game “Risk,” only with “running and moving,” he said. He also said he was drawn to the features on a new model of gun.
That’s where everything went south.
In the van, while Connor was merely commenting on what he’d been immersed in all day, conversing with friends, I found myself thrown wildly and deeply into a hole of unresolved pain. Ten years earlier my world had been rocked by a gun. This gun issued real, life-taking bullets, was far from bright and colorful, and was wielded by an angry and vindictive individual. The weapon’s similarities to all guns deeply impacted my ability to be neutral regarding all L-shaped objects with triggers and barrels. On this particular occasion in the van with my son, I completely lost my ability to respond rationally.
“When you have dealt with the death of your sister and nieces to gun-shot wounds made by their husband and father, then you can buy a new gun! When you have cleaned your three-month-old nieces’ blood out of your mother-in-law’s hair, then you can buy a new gun! When you are mature enough to understand how ridiculous you and your friends are, and you understand the idiocy of this ‘game,’ then you can buy a stupid new gun!”
The words came flooding out of me. Involuntary, loud, angry words. I was shocked and Connor was stunned. Leaning as far back as he could without falling out of the window, his face was white and his eyes were wide. My face was red and my eyes gushed with tears. We were at a painful crossroads. In that split-second I felt little difference between what had happened ten years earlier, on my mother-in-law’s lawn, and Connor’s desire to play war. Both had guns as central features, both involved power struggles and displays of violence, and both were out of my control. My emotional reaction sprang from the same well—I’m ultimately out of control over anyone but myself.
Throughout history kids have “played” their way through battles and wars. Researchers, historians, sociologists, and psychologists explain this as part of a child’s attempt to master the concepts of power, conflict, and resolution. In moments such as this, however, no descriptions help. My brother-in-law Dave (married to my husband’s sister) had no history of violent behavior, and yet shot his way into my mother-in-law Margaret’s home, killing his wife, Laura, and their three young daughters before throwing the gun down at Margaret’s feet and taunting her to pick it up and kill him. She was there with him for thirty minutes before any help arrived. Margaret lived the rest of her life from a place of deep woundedness and trauma. As her caregiver for these remaining years, I saw, firsthand, how guns can take and impact lives.
While Connor had only been two at the time of the murders, he had grown up knowing how his aunt and cousins died—knowing how I felt about guns. It was not a nebulous issue. I was opposed and firmly believed that comfort with any kind of gun was unnecessary. He, however, felt he could hold on to a pacifistic worldview and still “play” with toy guns. He hadn’t played with them at all as a young child but now he was twelve and, while he was incredibly sensitive about relationships, highly compliant, and very loving, he never manifested concern about my feelings surrounding guns. In this moment, with his mom yelling at him across the van’s front seat, he no longer had the luxury of disregarding my feelings. They were bold and loud and in his face.
I pulled over. I got a hold of myself. We talked.
At root, the murders had forever changed me. They’d made crystal clear the point that I ultimately had very little control of the events shaping my life. They demonstrated that loving people is risky and that, sometimes, those you love will make choices influencing their lives and the lives of others in profound and painful ways. The violent deaths had served to focus my fear and expand my sadness. I could never again say “that will never happen to me” in relation to the reality of physical violence, in my own family or elsewhere.
During my roadside encounter with Connor, though, I came face-to-face with the reality that his experience was just that. His. Connor’s. While we may have shared a home, a lifestyle, and even, for a period of time, a body, we remained, uniquely, our own people. We agreed on some issues and differed wildly on others. He did not belong to me or have a lifetime subscription to my values and ideals. He was fully his own person, with his own independent thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. This realization has turned out to be the hardest reality of parenting for me.
I have attempted to assure myself that Connor’s upbringing will lead him to an adulthood filled with meaning, intention, and integrity, infused with expressions of grace, love, and empathy. In doing so, I have at times tried to tell myself that I must make sure he believes certain things, ascribes to certain values, and is far beyond being “normal.” Normal twelve-year-old boys, however, are intrigued by guns. Normal twelve-year-old boys are easily influenced by an object-obsessed culture. My son is intrigued by guns. My son wants new things. My son is normal!
While this realization should have been a relief, it hit me as a disappointment. Since his birth I had been happy to discover the many ways in which Connor was not normal. His strong relational bent set him apart from his same-age male counterparts. His early and advanced language skills supported his drive to connect. He loved to entertain and took pains to do so. He was aware of spiritual things and also of the temperament and preferences of others. He was smart and capable and, if I had anything to say about it, not normal.
I didn’t want to be normal either. I wanted to be the informed mom. The “oh-it’s-no-sweat-setting-boundaries-plus-giving-all-the-grace-and-love-possible” mom. The mom who raised a nontraditional boy. I was convinced that, if I was such a mom, the outcome would be a boy who was confident and strong and not macho or violent. The result, in my imagination, would be a boy who does not play with guns. Ever.
The problem, however, was that in my attempts to buck gender and evaluative stereotypes, I unconsciously told myself that if Connor showed any traditional “boy” traits, I had failed at the job of parenting. I had convinced myself that I could control Connor’s interests, passions, and behaviors; that I knew what was best and most healthy for him; and that the ultimate goal of his life should be extreme excellence and maturity by my standards at all times. Each time this proved not true, I felt increasingly out of control, like a failure, and convinced all was not well in the world of our mother-son connectedness. As a therapist I piled on the self-doubt, fear, and condemnation, telling myself that if things were amiss within this connectedness, Connor would certainly fail to thrive outside of it. But somehow, armed with my psychological knowledge and teeth-gritting determination, I have been able to partner with my husband and God to parent Connor in such a way that Conner is emerging from the nest free from much of the unhealthy striving and concern about the opinion and approval of others that has plagued me.
In fact, my son has shown himself to be thoughtful about his actions, teachable, and appropriately confident in ways that I am not. He can stomach my disapproval of the games he plays with toy guns, he is willing to listen to my curiosity about how he can square his self-asserted pacifistic ideals with these games, and he’s confident that he can live as a dedicated-to-peace man and still airsoft in the backyard with friends for an hour every few months. He takes stands about things he thinks are important. He is active in pursuits that expose and attempt to eradicate human trafficking. He quit playing video games that involve any violent content because he believes they are created by an industry that too powerfully affects young people. While I don’t understand how he can take these strong stances while still shooting his friends with an airsoft gun, it’s not up to me to make these decisions for him. That reality makes me crazy.
Letting go of my deeply dredged desire to control my children is difficult on good days and impossible on hard ones. It involves me coming to terms with my own lack of power and acknowledging the reality that it is neither fair nor realistic for me to measure my parenting success or personal prowess by my children’s behaviors, beliefs, or moral standing. Neither can I force them to take on the values and standards I believe to be in their best interests. My striving to teach, to expose, to mirror, and to empathize is just that: mine. Their desire to take what I offer, to shape their own behavior, intelligence, and values are just that: theirs. I can structure and shape their experiences to a point. I can educate and share resources and personal knowledge. I can build a community of support for them to reference when I am not who they want. I can put child locks on the knife drawers and “play with me” signs on the Fisher Price doctor kit, but I cannot control the inner workings of my children’s motivational selves or temperaments.
As I write this, the increasingly outspoken pacifist, seventeen-year-old Connor and his all-sides-of-the-table friends are out back, playing with their airsoft guns. These young men, confident, deep in faith, and rich in intelligence, are the exploring, work-in-progress young men they are supposed to be. Their laughter is infectious and this game is but a game—not my game but theirs, only one tiny activity in their arsenal of many. I don’t endorse it, but I deeply endorse them. I don’t like I, but I deeply love them. This love is risky and engaging and requires me to give up control at appropriate times and in measured increments. Doing so hurts and heals, challenges, and fulfills. What more could I ask of this crazy, complicated, conflict-inherent process called mothering?