Saying 'no' to a child's wish list of ballistics

It was almost Christmas and definitely time to shop. I considered my nephew's penciled list and groaned. I remembered what it was like not to get what I wanted for Christmas. The sinking sense of disappointment as wrapping paper lost its promise to the reality of socks or over-perfumed Avon products. How Christmas gifts confirmed my suspicion that no one really knew me.

I would even brave the mall for the sake of my nephew, visions of old Christmas movies featuring Macy's dancing in my head. But surely Santa himself would balk at delivering his requests for the latest computer orgies of combat, with names like Diabolical and Masters of Evil. Or a model submachine gun that turns into a CD player.

I like my nephew. He looks like Dick out of the "Dick and Jane" books of my childhood, brown hair with an endearing wave in the front, eyes bright with curiosity and a sense of adventure. I remembered when he stayed with us a couple years ago. He was 11 then. We played hours of badminton, swam in the community pool during family swim, and threw thousands of darts. He moved like a deer or a dolphin, with strength and grace. But the badminton racquet kept turning into a rifle as he erupted into sounds of rapid fire, aiming at the swallows crossing the summer sky. The darts became grenades. I flinched at his zeal for weaponry and choice of innocent targets.

I knew his short life hadn't been very encouraging or comfortable. His family lived on military bases with not enough money, his father absent for months at sea, serving the country but not his son. I wanted to respect my nephew instead of preaching at him. But his anger and his fascination with guns frustrated me.

I remembered when he flicked the remote to a TV movie where a blond child pointed a gun from a bedroom window. My nephew said, "Now that's my kind of kid."

I felt chilled, turning to stare at him as he sat, a little boy in an armchair. I told him my house was a "gun-free zone"; that no one was allowed to watch violent TV or to shoot anything inside the house. He made a face and changed the channel.

When I saw him last year, he had just bought a World War II German military helmet with the money he'd earned mowing lawns and in allowance. He proudly modeled the green metal helmet for us. The rim cast a shadow over his eyes. He stood at attention, stiff.

So what DID I give this 13-year-old boy? I had no choice but to disappoint him. I empathized with his need to feel tough and his anger. But I wanted to point him in other directions. I went to my locally owned music store where the much-pierced sales clerk led me to the rap aisle and "Blacks' Magic," by Salt-N-Pepa. The singers were women. The CD had a "clean" seal on it proclaiming it free of violent, sexist, and racist lyrics. I wrapped it and enclosed a note.

"I hope you like your present. I want you to know I'm never going to get you war toys because I believe violence is bad for people. I'd like for us to to talk more about guns and war sometime. And next year, I hope we can find something you want that I can give to you."

* Louise M. Wisechild is a Vashon Island, Wash. writer. Her most recent book is 'The Mother I Carry' (Seal, 1993).

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