When my husband was growing up, the only boy in a family of all girls, his mother didn't allow him to have any toy guns. He was a mild mannered, sweet little boy. But when he was five years old, he ran over to his friend's house and "borrowed" one of the toy guns he had played with over there and coveted, stashing it in his bedroom.
For years, every time I heard what has become a famous family story I sided with my mother-in-law. When my sons were babies I knew how our society viewed male aggression. Like other parents I knew, I had a keen desire to protect my boys, a certainty I could steer their play in the right direction, and a categorical abhorrence for violent toys of any kind. Their first toys were blocks, puzzles, and cooperative games. They were empathetic and kind boys. I felt no small triumph that my strategy had worked: my gentle sons didn't even know what weapons were.
Then my firstborn went to a birthday party. In the goodie bags for these four-year-olds was a plastic toy gun. My son was utterly riveted. I tried to coax it away from him. "Bang bang!" he shouted, running around with the other kids. Just days later my shy little two year old fixated upon a toy sword that came with a pirate toy someone had given him, and would not go anywhere without it. I could see that the ludicrously small sword made him feel brave. I tried (unsuccessfully) to pry it out of his tiny hands. That he liked the weapon so much deeply unnerved me.