My older son peered through the blinds into our backyard, 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 glass and peered out at his friends playing soccer in our backyard. 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’s 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 stipulations 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 wasn’t 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, 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 pos long-term rift with his buddies. My wife 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 he 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 had 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.