“No, you may not buy that gun,” I tell my five-year-old son at the dollar store. He’s waving a plastic laser gun around and play-shooting me, his nine-year-old brother and a little girl trying to pass us in the aisle while her mom shoots me dirty looks. “But why not?” he whines between pow pows, and I give the usual shtick about how we don’t allow guns in the house. The thing is, I’m bluffing. Our playroom is packed with weapons: little army men clutching rifles, foam swords, Star Wars lightsabers with their hideous sound effects… I’m not sure where they came from, but they are there, scattered among the Lego.
Like many parents, I’m torn between allowing my kids to play with the toy guns they’re clearly drawn to and fearing it’ll turn them into violent psychopaths. In my gut, I feel it’s harmless; why limit imaginative play? Then I’ll read about yet another school shooting and, well, no dollar store guns in my house. While I generally discourage gunplay, my boys have gone so far as to turn a pancake—yes, a flat, round pancake—into a pistol by biting it just so. I’m curious to know why this happens. Why do kids—and boys, especially—gravitate to this type of behaviour? And is it really that bad?
Joanne Cummings is a psychologist in Toronto and director of knowledge mobilization at PREVNet, a national organization working to eliminate violence caused by bullying. While there are clearly exceptions, she says studies show that boys and girls have different styles of play, especially between the ages of three and six. “Boys gravitate more toward active play with themes of fighting and weaponry. In general, girls are more interested in princesses and family-type stories that involve nurturing and caring for others.”
While a generation of parents has been dutifully giving their sons baby dolls and their daughters toy trucks in attempts to break away from what many see as socially conditioned play patterns, the good news, according to Cummings, is that a love for pretend weapons doesn’t mean your kid is turning into a violent person. In fact, there are developmental benefits. “The kind of imaginative play that boys are drawn to is choreographed—they’re learning role-playing and empathy,” she says. “If there’s no intent to harm and if it’s fun and mutually enjoyable, it can actually teach boys self-control and self-regulation. Learning how to co-create a narrative with their play partner—pretend this, pretend that—is actually important for them,” says Cummings. Most kids outgrow this behaviour by age six, and for many it morphs into sports.
This knowledge may help reassure parents like Michelle Fagen—a mom of two boys, ages six and three—who has been adamant that her house be a weapon-free zone. “I didn’t use to allow toy guns or other weapons, because we’re not violent people. I don’t want to raise my kids to normalize violence, but instead teach them that we can handle conflict in a peaceful way using our words and reason,” she says. Despite her efforts, Fagen’s kids will often transform branches into guns and they’re drawn to toy swords during playdates. When her three-year-old was only two, he once picked up a stick on the ground and aimed it at her, sniper-style, from behind a tree.
Fagen has recently loosened her anti-toy gun stance. She’ll allow Nerf water guns, for example, because they don’t look like actual guns (she calls them “blasters”). And she no longer “misplaces” the teeny guns that come with miniature Lego sets. “It felt ubiquitous. It was like fighting a losing battle,” she says. “Plus, I didn’t want to make it so forbidden that it’s even more alluring to them.”
That’s a smart move, according to Mirisse Foroughe, a clinical psychologist at Kindercare Pediatrics and consulting psychologist with the Child Development Institute (a children’s mental health agency in Toronto). “Kids notice when their parents have a strong reaction to something,” she says. “It’s just going to pique their interest when they think gunplay is a big thing.” The key, she says, is monitoring your child’s play and ensuring it’s a positive experience. “When it becomes cruel and persistent, that’s when we worry. Ask yourself, ‘Is there cruelty and abuse, or is it just competitive, conquering kind of play?’ The latter is really normal.”
And then, there are the superheroes. In North America, we’re inundated with images of fictional characters with extraordinary powers—many of them toting guns or other weapons. “Superheroes have such meaning for little boys,” says Cummings. “It’s a way of identifying with someone who’s brave, who doesn’t shy away from danger—someone who has these wonderful talents and attributes used for good in the world. In stories like Star Wars, it’s always good triumphing over evil. Those are positive values.” Cummings feels we should be encouraging imaginative play that’s well regulated and reciprocal, not discouraging it. “Play fighting is very natural; don’t shame or forbid it,” she says.
There are no large-scale studies linking fake guns and other weaponry to real-life aggression (Foroughe says actions like being cruel to animals or hurting people just for the sake of it are far stronger indicators). Still, many people are on high alert following a wave of school shootings in the US, not to mention the shooting here in Canada on Parliament Hill. That could partially explain why an increasing number of schools have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to gun-related behaviour. Last year, for example, a 10-year-old boy in Ohio was suspended from school for making a gun gesture with his hand. In 2013, an eight-year-old Florida boy faced the same fate while playing cops and robbers in the schoolyard and using his fingers as a gun. Last year a Kitchener dad was arrested and strip-searched after his four-year-old daughter drew a picture of him holding a gun in her kindergarten class. Even kids as young as three are being discouraged from playing good guy-bad guy. At one Toronto daycare, a three-year-old boy and his posse received a dreaded “time out” for pretending their hands were guns; that same daycare banned all superhero costumes on Halloween because it felt they encouraged too much roughhousing.
Jennifer Allen is a junior kindergarten teacher at an Ottawa public school. While her school has no official policy regarding gunplay, she has colleagues who are firmly against it. Allen, however, has a more relaxed approach. “What I’ve learned from 10 years of teaching is that anything can be turned into a weapon,” she says, citing skipping rope handles as an example. “The kids are saying ‘Let’s go catch the bad guys!’ They’re not shooting someone dead—it’s never targeted at a specific student. Kids need to role play.”
How to manage gunplay:
1. Avoid look-alikes
Psychologist Joanne Cummings says we’re better off handing our children a pink or orange water pistol rather than a toy that looks very literal. “It’s not as realistic, and they have to use their imagination.”
2. Know the warning signs
There’s a big difference between aggressive play and aggressive behaviour. When there’s an intent to harm—or when a child is unable to resolve conflict except through overpowering other people—that’s when to worry.
3. Stick around
Monitor how your children are playing. There will be mishaps when there is any kind of rambunctious play, says Cummings, but kids learn from these. “It’s like learning to use scissors.”
4. Set boundaries
Children shouldn’t be hurting each other during fake gun battles. If there’s persistent violence or aggression, it’s time to break up the game and explore the underlying cause.
5. Talk it out
Have frequent conversations with your child about how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way, and talk to them about what real guns actually do. “It’s important that kids understand that gunplay is make-believe and that in real life, we don’t fight, but, rather, use our words to explain how we’re feeling,” says Cummings.