I was shooting a Nazi in the skull the other day when my toddler walked into the room.

On our television was a game called Sniper Elite V2, a first-person shooter in which you play an American soldier prowling the bombed-out streets of Berlin at the end of World War II, hunting Hitler loyalists and killing or capturing Nazi rocket scientists. My wife and soon-to-be 3-year-old were playing together in my daughter’s bedroom, and I was kicking back on the couch in the living room, enjoying some all-too-rare time with my old friend Xbox.

There are definitely worse things to have your kid walk in on, but being caught in flagrante delicto with a piece of R-rated pop culture is a close second.

I acknowledge — this was not my finest moment as a parent, and I shouldn’t have been playing this game at all if there was even a remote chance of my child catching a glimpse. Sniper Elite is not just a game with guns and violence, it luxuriates in the crimson-soaked, bone-shattering deaths of its villains. Catch a Nazi in your sights, pull the trigger, and the camera follows the bullet in slow-motion as it cuts through the air and plunges into the face or body of your target.

As the bullet hits, the bad guy’s skeleton becomes visible so you can watch his bones disintegrate as the slug passes in one side and out the other.

The violence is over the top, but I don’t have any problem with it as a diversion for reasonable adults. But it does present terrifying images no child should see.

I was sure I’d have enough time to press pause if I spotted my daughter coming out of the hallway and into the TV room. Unfortunately, I underestimated how distracting a team of Nazi sharpshooters could be, and how fast her little legs could run.

Even worse, just moments before pressing pause, I had also just squeezed the trigger — so the image frozen on screen was of a skeleton face being pierced through the brain-pan, like a nightmare version of Steve Martin’s wild-and-crazy guy with an arrow through the head.

“Heyyyyy … sweeeeetteeee …” I heard myself saying, as I sprang from the couch, in a moment that also seemed to play out in slow-motion. I was trying to throw myself in front of that bullet, so to speak.

But my little girl had already glanced over at the television. “What’s that?” she asked casually, the way one might inquire about a unique flower in a neighbor’s garden.

My response: “Ummmm…”

What could I possibly say to explain? See, kid … America faces the threat of nuclear annihilation if the Russians get hold of these Nazi rocket scientists, so –.

What I actually said was, “It’s nothing. Just a scary thing, but it’s only pretend. Let’s go back in to see mommy.”

As I ushered her back into the hall, she looked back over her shoulder, then smiled. She wasn’t scared. “Is that a pirate!?”


Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Oh — yes! She has seen the spooky-but-not-terrifying skeleton logo for Pirates of the Caribbean and also associates the skull cave from her Peter Pan books with Captain Hook and his crew. She loves to sing the “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me” song.

Pirates = Absolution for Inattentive Dad!

“You got it!” I said, guiding her back into her room. “That was a pirate. Absolutely correct.”

She tried to scurry around me to run back into the living room, a huge smile on her face. “I like pirates!!!”

I had successfully prevented any psychological scarring, but my penance for indulging in a grown-up game when I shouldn’t have known better was a mini-tantrum from a toddler who couldn’t fathom why I was hoarding the pirate show all for myself. If it wasn’t scary, why couldn’t she see more of it?

Again, I fell back on that reliable counter-argument: “Ummmmmm…”

But there was a valuable lesson, and something beautiful, in how her little mind chose to interpret a potentially distressing image. The things that frighten her are people in mascot or Disney character costumes. And witches. Pirates and skeletons don’t scare her. She has no idea what a Nazi really is. She doesn’t know what a gun does either. I’m happy about that, though someday that will change.

Inevitably, kids see things that they shouldn’t, and process it the only way they can. Luckily, the life of a well-loved 3-year-old really is a fairy tale. So while Sniper Elite V2 is a disturbing game by design, her little mind full of rainbows and Smurfs was able to overpower that darkness.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Our little girl is still too young for the PG-13 rated Real Steel, the robot boxing father/son story director Shawn Levy made last year, but I thought it was a big-hearted, fun movie (the kind I would have loved as a kid) and I’m eager to watch it with her some day when she’s a little older. For now, she has a couple of the toys, and although they look fearsome, they actually spend a lot of time riding around in a pink car with her rubber Smurfs, a Yoda, and some stubby Fisher Price people.

One of the robots, a samurai-type called Noisy Boy (pictured above), has big, blunt forearms that spin when you push a button on his back. In the movie, the robot uses those blunt, revolving mitts to drill its opponent with every punch. At my daughter’s age, we’re teaching her that hitting is not a good thing, so I was curious what she thought might be the purpose of those spinning fists of fury.

“He makes scrambled eggs,” she answered, without hesitation.

While we’re busy trying to protect our little ones from the world, it’s nice when they can show us it’s not so scary after all.

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