This Little Box of War
Teaching our children the reality of armed conflicts with play
Play therapy isn’t new. As a therapist, I see its benefits; even though I no longer work with children, I have two. We can use toys, puppets, role plays, rubber duckies, or games to learn and teach. When was the last time you used play to teach your child a lesson about life? Here’s an idea from my recent learning and teaching with my son.
The family recently celebrated my son’s sixth birthday. His mother set it up at a local bowling alley. Games, laser tag, pizza, a table full of presents, and a gaggle of play pals- all were there. It was a nice contrast to the prior year that I planned at one of our favorite parks. That day was cold and rainy; only a few kiddos showed up even though we’d invited scores. Blame the weather; always unpredictable here. He still had fun, though I think he enjoyed this year’s party more.
At this year’s party, loud pop music played. Disco lights flashed about. Pins crashed in the distance, and “WOO HOO”s rose. A cheerful friend of his mothers lugged in a large box and set it down under the folding table with a mountain of other surprises. Going big, I saw. I wondered how impressed my little guy might be with whatever was inside. She knows him pretty well, and he’s played a ton with her son.
Weren’t we all in for a surprise. The box was filled with a familiar toy from my past. Toy soldiers. One piece was even labeled “Bucket O Soldiers.” As a child, I’m sure I would have forgotten everything else and been immediately immersed in building fortresses, flying sorties, and scaling up battles. I wanted to be a fighter pilot or a frogman (SEAL)when I grew up.
That was a different time and set of ideals for me. I had no idea what war was about, why it occurred, or any consequences. It was all fantasy and good guys vs. bad guys. You find this theme familiar among kids.
Later in life, I figured it out. War was bad.
I met people with prosthetics. I had friends and family who had lost someone in various conflicts. My mother had a cousin who jumped from a Huey onto a landmine in Vietnam, killing him instantly. I had a veteran Dad who discouraged me from romanticizing such scenarios and a grandfather who would watch war movies with me yet remain powerfully silent during and after.
As I grew old enough to decide if I’d join the military, I found I wasn’t so fond of war anymore. I started to understand what people meant when they said war was hell. I knew at least three reasons my family didn’t want me to join.
There was a legitimate offer to pursue my dreams, complete with test scores and a physical. I had mixed feelings.
I didn’t come from a pacifist lineage.
I had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. Though they were pretty reluctant, none of my living family members would have talked me out of joining the military if that’s what my heart desired. They know of my inner warrior.
I decided not to go. I chose to stay and defend. It doesn’t mean I tolerate what’s being done abroad or the violations against humanity. Or that I would permit tyranny at home. If worst comes to worst, I will rise to my duty, unfailingly. I thought hard about that and my options for contribution.
As revered as military service can be, it always comes with one caveat.
Will you give your life in armed conflict, no matter what that conflict is or is about?
I am not anti-military. I have friends who served. I work with vets as clients. I support them. It was their choice. It just wasn’t a choice I wanted to make, and I sure hope my son doesn’t decide to make that choice.
Defense of our loved ones and ideals is also something I take seriously. I have trained to be the first responder for my family and others. Help may not arrive in time for the kind of emergencies any of us could face. I’ve witnessed this firsthand and was able to respond.
I have trained with medical, firefighting, community emergency response, and tactical trainers from law enforcement and special operations. Second-best emergency knowledge puts you second best in defeating death, and we all know it’s already ahead. I can train my children in any of these things, and they never have to join.
Before you judge, I’m also independent politically. I’m not a single-issue voter, and I’m not a fan of throwing labels instead of engaging in respectful discussion. No matter where someone stands, I prefer to find our shared values and ideals. Whatever you believe about war, I’m willing to listen.
Back to my son opening this present. His mother and I decided when we were still together that we didn’t want him playing with violent toys, play guns or soldier sets such as this. We didn’t want him watching violent movies, scary movies, or anything that would fill his little sponge with overtly negative views of reality.
We wanted him to be a happy little kid and grow into a happy, strong adult. When he was beyond his fantastical thinking stage, he’d be allowed to play with more advanced toys- with a lot of guidance and discussion.
We wanted him to be able to understand our values, decisions, and guidance as well. We then, now, and always want to keep him safe. Alas, he will grow up.
He opened the box up as we all stood admiring.
Instead of a beaming boy, we all witnessed his puzzling discovery. I don’t think he even smiled. He pulled an air wing from the box, stealth bombers, F-15 Eagles, and Apache gunships. Air support.
Next came the M1 Abrams with battle sounds. A deuce and half with a complement of missiles. Humvees, Jeeps and troop transports. Armor and cavalry.
That wasn’t all. What war set is completed without a “Bucket O’ Soldiers”? The bottom of the box was filled with toy soldiers, too — Grenadiers, bazooka wielders, radio operators, ranking officers, riflemen, machine gunners.
Where were the bleeping medics? The chaplains? The photographers? Where were the women? Where were the “Family back home” sets? Where were the budget sheets, the Acts of Congress?
Razor wire, sandbags, barricades, walls, trees, and mountains. He would easily be able to establish a fortified and formidable base. The little boy in me was still fascinated; the adult in me said,
He quickly moved on to the next present nonchalantly.
His mother and I eyeballed each other. She stood with arms crossed, disapprovingly. I looked at her with equal concern. There it was, a little box of war. We couldn’t ask the other mom to take it back, and we couldn’t sneak it out the side door without waiting a few hours.
He would know if it was missing.
The box got sent home with me. His mom didn’t want it at her house. Her grandfather had died in the Lebanese civil war, and her family came to the U.S. as refugees. She has a firm conviction there I respect.
Now that my son had seen the box arrive, I had to figure out what would take place. A few weeks passed, and when he visited, he would look at it yet never open it. He was excited about his other presents and playing with them. I kept the box around, wondering if I’d find him digging in it and then driving his units around as commander of the living room.
Never happened. I thought I’d offer him a chance to check it out with me instead. I sorted through everything and laid out some of the key pieces. I felt like a young boy again, and I thought about what I wanted to tell him. I tried to gauge his interest and share my knowledge. I thought of a teaching plan.
I came out groggy one morning to find him playing with it. I had asked him not to play with it without me, though his curiosity took over. After all, hadn’t I laid it all out for him? I felt a wave of shame.
I sat down on the floor with him, and I said,
“Ok, today we’re going to play, and we’re also going to learn something, ok?”
“Yeah!” he exclaimed.
He was already making gun sounds and knocking bits over here and there.
“There are a few rules,” I explained.
“The first one is that when you attack someone, they don’t get to stay.”
He looked slightly confused. All the cartoons he’d seen were filled with immortals and villains who always came back for the next episode. This cartoon wasn’t going to be as entertaining.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because when people use real guns or bombs, people get hurt, and people die. Sometimes they never get to see their family again.”
“Oh, ok,” he said a little more quietly.
“The next rule is that whoever is left at the end will tell us who won.”
“Yay!” he announced.
He likes to win. We’re still working on the losing.
We had our rules set. He began his attacks. I would lay whatever unit he decimated down on its side and away from the others. He was feeling powerful, I could tell.
Then came the counterattacks with armor and air. I would remove several of his pieces. He didn’t like that, so he would drive his tanks into my men, then I would destroy them with land mines, of course. I told him about drones, satellites, and supply lines. I think most of it was over his head.
What wasn’t over his head was the message at the end of our battle. A conclusion he came to himself. Nearly equal on the field were the amounts of soldiers and the array of destruction — the outcome.
“Ok, we don’t have anything left to fight with,” I told him.
“No way, dude!” he challenged.
“Yeah,” I said. “Who won?”
“Nobody,” he relented.
“You’re exactly right,” I said. “That’s what war is like. Nobody wins.”
I watched his face intently. He seemed to be reflecting. I think it stuck, yet he still wanted a rematch. He wasn’t itching to begin right away, though.
I put the pieces back in the box and moved them aside. Since then, he’s only played with them a few times, with no opposing force. He’s always more interested in other things and has every opportunity to ask me more questions.
The other day on a co-parenting call with his mother, I shared I was going to make the box disappear. I told her about our play and what I told him. I also told her that I thought it probably sank in, as our little guy is very wise, kind, and intelligent.
“Good,” she said, “No objection.”
It’s nice to have a victory for all, a victory for our family especially.