Not long after my first son was born, I started thinking about all of the dangers he would encounter in the world and how to best protect him from them. As I went through the list of what I wanted to prepare him for, I came to an epiphany: The only way to prepare him for what he would encounter was to begin his education at an early age.

While I had part of the answer, I was also presented with a new problem: Educating a child is hard. This is especially true when it comes to complicated concepts like dealing with people who will take advantage of you, knowing your worth and about a million other life lessons he will have to learn as he matures into a young adult.

Knowledge about firearms at first seemed like one of the easier-to-tackle concepts on the list. After all, I’ve been a responsible gun owner for more than two decades. I know the basic gun-safety rules by heart and follow them religiously.

Then it hit me:

It wasn’t me or my guns or my gun practices that presented the greatest danger. Like so much of the rest of things that worried me as a parent, it was the other people for whom I had to prepare him.

With him now in school and starting to make friends — and likely visiting those kids’ homes in the near future — how could I prepare him for a situation in which I wasn’t around to help guide him?

Our approach to educating our 5-year-old son about guns focuses on three fundamental tenets: understanding and appreciating the hardware, memorizing and practicing the gun-safety rules, and respecting the mindset of gun use and ownership. My wife and I decided on a plan that was a little unconventional, but the early returns have been very positive thus far.

Understand and Appreciate the Hardware

There are times when the power and capabilities of modern firearms amaze even me. So how can I impart an appreciation of and respect for firearms and how to properly use them to a preschooler? Success can only be achieved by meeting your student at his or her level of education, not by trying to bring him or her to yours. For us, this manifested in the form of our son’s first Nerf gun he received as a Christmas present. This was the ideal instrument to use to educate him about real guns.

The first was function. Our son’s first Nerf gun is essentially a bolt-action rifle, and showing him how to load his Nerf rifle safely, bring it into battery and aim it was a very useful sequence. This particular toy has proved even more useful since it has an actual molded Picatinny rail. We have since replaced the plastic “scope” with an actual functioning red-dot optic to give it an even more real feel.

A little bit of deliberate choice can make your child’s early toys replicate the real things, which can allow you to start engraining the proper safety protocols early on. In some cases, you may even be able to train your child, like we did, with actual firearms accessories deployed on his or her toys to shorten that learning curve even further.

Repetition of the Gun-Safety Rules

We should all know them by heart, but repeating them never hurts:

  • Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
  • Treat all guns like they are loaded.
  • Keep your finger off of the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
  • Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

As a starting point for early gun education, these four rules are critical. I wanted to imprint these rules as early as possible, reinforce them often and do whatever necessary to keep them at the top of my son’s mind in case he encounters a firearm in any scenario. In fact, we review these rules every time he plays with his Nerf rifle.

His “gun” lives in the gun safe with papa’s guns. When he wants to play with it he has to ask, and we then go retrieve it from the safe. Before he can play with it, we review the rules of gun safety and he repeats them back to me. He demonstrates to me that he is keeping his finger off of the trigger, and we talk about safe muzzle direction. Then he is allowed to play.

While he is playing, I fill the role of rangemaster. When his gun-safety efforts come up a bit short, I remind him of the gun-safety rule he broke so that he can correct his actions. If, on any given day, he isn’t able to keep his mind on what he’s doing, the gun goes back in the safe until he can give it the attention it deserves.

In addition to storing his gun with my real guns and enforcing the four primary rules of gun safety, I emphasize a few other rules that go along with his Nerf rifle:

  • We don’t shoot people.
  • We don’t shoot pets.
  • We only shoot at targets papa says are OK.
  • We don’t put it down and walk away from it.
  • We don’t let little brother play with it.

Breaking any of these rules once gets a reminder and a redirection. On days when he doesn’t follow the rules, the toy goes back in the safe.

Respect the Mindset

We have gone about teaching our child gun safety this way because I think it is easier to establish the potential danger of every gun, Nerf included, and then present the exceptions as my son begins to appreciate a firearm’s power than try to work the other way around. It goes back to the idea so many parents struggle with: I don’t worry about my kids … I worry about other people’s kids. I would much rather my son think Nerf guns are dangerous for a few years while we begin his introduction to real guns — and then explain that Nerf guns aren’t real — than him assume all guns are toys and then have to explain that they aren’t.

Staying Ahead of the Game

I have not been able to locate the FBI statistics for annual deaths attributed to Nerf guns. I suspect that number is zero. But the idea of death is a tough one for a child to understand. For those of us who have had to explain burying grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles to our kids, we are aware how they struggle with the concept of death.

For my wife and me, the answer was focusing not on the outcome but rather the process of avoiding it. When we achieved a natural understanding of what that may look like, we could marry those two ideas.

There have been times when I’ve wondered if this plan is too rigid. I remember the Nerf battles I had with my brother and cousins growing up. Am I being too strict?

I kept returning to the notion that I felt was too obvious to ignore: Better to teach it this way and present the exceptions later than teach him the valuable lesson a single day too late.

For my wife and I, this method of educating our son has been great. His little brother has started to mimic and parrot his actions and words even though he hasn’t yet been the focus of our training. My oldest is preparing for his first hunting season, and he already knows how to use a red-dot scope. He can tell if his .410 shotgun is loaded or unloaded, and he naturally keeps his finger outside the trigger guard until I tell him it’s OK to shoot at a target.

He has joined me on the trap line to see me dispatch animals we have caught. He has seen a raccoon stop moving. He is beginning to understand the connection between the power of a firearm and the implication it can have when used improperly. Frankly, at almost 5 years old, I think he has a better handle on it than some adults with whom I’ve shared a range.

So it seems our training is going as planned. Only time will tell.

Nerf Revolutionizes Indoor Play

“You can’t hurt babies or old people.”

In 1969, the Parker Brothers released the world’s first indoor ball. The packaging read: ‘SAFE! The Nerf Ball is made of incredibly soft and spongy synthetic foam. Throw it around indoors; you can’t damage lamps or break windows. You can’t hurt babies or old people.” The name came from the foam-padded roll bars on Jeeps, dubbed “Nerf bars.” By the end of 1970, more than 4 million 4-inch Nerf balls were sold. Reyn Guyer, a serial entrepreneur who also developed Twister, designed the ball and still owns one of the hand-cut originals. Guyer displayed it in a small mahogany box lined with black velour during a series of TV interviews during Nerf’s 25th anniversary. “To our great surprise, the Nerf ball — just a ball in a little square box — sold by the millions,” he wrote in his book Right Brain Red: 7 Ideas for Creative Success (2016). “Who knew the world wanted a ball that wouldn’t bounce?” The first Nerf gun, the Blast-a-Ball, was released in 1989. It projected a single foam ball up to 30 feet from a plastic tube. Nerf has since developed more-sophisticated guns. During an interview in 2012, Duncan Billing, Hasbro’s chief global development officer at the time, said enough Nerf darts had been produced in just four years to circle the Earth four times.

— Frank Jastrzembski, Contributing Editor