Up in Arms: Kids & Toy Guns
Should parents worry about kids' instinct for make believe gun play?
Emily W., a former social worker who runs an in-home daycare, wasn’t ever crazy about the idea of guns in her home — real or fake. One day last summer, husband Dustin and 10-year-old stepson Will came home with a battery of toy Nerf artillery. “Shotgun, sniper, semi-automatic — everything” she counts off.
Father and son happily bonded over their new toys, fashioning armor and shields out of cardboard and duct tape while Emily balked at the pile of foam ammunition. She was in a bind — one shared by countless modern parents trying to navigate the unsettling world of toys, kids and pretend guns.
When it comes to pretend guns, parents are often at odds with their kids’ natural tendencies, without much guidance from science. One Brandeis University study found that toy guns increase aggressive behaviors, but scores of parents, experts and researchers heartily disagree. And a growing school of thought around child-led play suggests that toy guns do indeed have a place in early childhood.
As shootings dominate the news month after month, pretend gun play has never been more maligned, says psychotherapist Katie Morse, LCSW. Many local school districts have a zero-tolerance policy. Not long ago, an 8-year-old Florida boy was suspended from school for pointing his fingers like a handgun.
Then there’s the yuck-factor: Gun play just plain makes us uncomfortable. “It’s easy to see violence and aggression in society and in the media, but when your sweet, innocent boy says ‘bang-bang’ and ‘I killed you,’ you fear whether he could grow up to be violent,” says Morse. “As a parent, those are normal, natural responses.”
Even so, our collective discomfort over fake artillery doesn’t stop kids from turning everything they find into a weapon. After Gloria L. realized that Caleb (4) and Jacob (3) didn’t need actual toy guns to lob pretend gunfire at each other, she surrendered, as it were. Now she allows pretend guns as long as the boys don’t point them at people.
Indeed, banning pretend gun play usually doesn’t work. “If your child wants to play guns and you’ve enforced such a ban and think it’s working, you’re probably just not turning around fast enough,” says Jeff A. Johnson, author of Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum.
Kids with a drive for pretend gun play will find a way to make it happen, continues Johnson. “I’ve seen children chew toast into handguns. “
Pretend gun play is also a stubbornly stereotypical “boy” behavior that persists, even in families that dial down traditional gender roles. Parents who are careful not to impose strict gender paradigms are often dismayed to see their little boy race around the house, shooting with a hairbrush.
Once again, it’s biology 1, parents 0, say neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. Gender-influenced toy preferences appear across cultures by age 1; by 3, children overwhelmingly choose toys associated with their own gender. Even primates do this. According to Aamodt and Wang, male monkeys prefer to play with trucks, female monkeys with dolls.
So kids will find a way to conjure up a toy pistol if they want one, and boys will be boys. Are parents just supposed to be OK with this?
It looks that way. While toy gun play can seem alarming, it’s usually harmless, says Morse. In fact, many child experts agree that forbidding this type of play only gives pretend guns more power. “Banning gun play may result in boys hiding it and feeling shameful for their desire to play in this innate way,” she says.
Gun play may also have developmental value, helping boys make sense of their world as they grapple with input about masculinity and power from male role models, TV, movies and peers.
Even though this type of play appears violent at first glance, parents should peel back the layers of what they’re seeing, says Johnson: “Toy gun play isn’t about violence as much as it is about symbols . . . of power, leadership, authority, strength and control.”
Pretend arms give children the chance to unravel these complicated concepts in the safe realm of play. “A child crawling on his belly across the yard holding a stick gun may be processing a pretend death and heroically pursuing a powerful enemy he will confront and defeat,” Johnson continues. “As casual observers, this kind of play looks violent and can make us adults feel icky inside, but the learning is rich and valuable.”
That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t set limits and rules around such “good guy-bad guy” role play, say experts.
Rule #1: Kids shouldn’t hurt each other during pretend gun battles. Guidelines about not pointing at others’ faces and not shooting people or pets are important, says Morse. Parents don’t have to agree to purchase or keep toy guns in the home, either; kids can get creative with household objects like paper-towel rolls or empty soap dispensers.
Rule #2: Keep an eye out for overly aggressive behaviors, like hurting people or animals “accidentally” or displaying a lack of remorse or empathy. These disconcerting red flags may warrant a chat with your child’s pediatrician.
Rule #3: Limiting exposure to violent TV programs and video games may be a better way to protect boys from aggressive influences than banning gun play. Research consistently links violence-glorifying video games with increased aggression and reduced empathy to the suffering of others. Unlike pretend gun play, violent video media has little to no redeeming learning value, says Morse.
As for Emily W., she’s slowly learned to value the bonding experience her husband and stepson share as they build forts and shoot down imaginary invaders. “Toy guns still make me uncomfortable, but that’s my own issue. I’m coming around.”
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning parenting and health journalist and mom of three.