By Micah ToubUpdated May 25, 2022
I tried to keep my son from seeing a gun, or any depiction of one, for as long as possible. When we did finally happen across a drawing of a rifle just before he turned two, near the beginning of The Story of Babar when a hunter shoots and kills the elephant’s mother, I quickly turned the page and left his questions about the weapon unanswered. But it was unavoidable. Guns are littered across kids’ movies—Yukon Cornelius brandishes a pistol to shoot the abominable snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for comic effect, and in Pixar’s Up the villain takes aim at the protagonists (one of them a child) with a vintage rifle. Meanwhile, there are guns in the hands of umpteen figurines in every toy store. I was recently shocked to find our local shop selling Playmobil’s “Police Headquarters with Prison,” featuring cops with firearms and jail cells in which to put manacled convicts.
My son is almost four now, and my heart sank a few months ago when he picked up a branch that had fallen from a tree and held it like a soldier would hold a rifle, informing me with great excitement: “It sprays fire!” I suggested we pretend the stick was merely a spear, but he was unconvinced. And later, when my son wanted to put a toy “bad guy” in jail and my wife gently lectured that “there are no bad guys, only bad circumstances,” he didn’t want to go there.
I’ll admit that guns can be used for protection, but more often they do what they are designed to do: kill people, and then destroy the lives of families and entire communities. My instinct to prevent my son from glorying in guns is, I think, a wish that his generation will exalt in less harmful sources of power. The thing is, as much as his imaginary gun play disappoints me, I’m conflicted about impeding it—mainly, because that would make me a huge hypocrite. During my own childhood in Denver, Colo.—which coincided with the height of the Cold War—I employed whatever gun-shaped item was available to single-handedly kill many thousands of imaginary Russian soldiers.
My father, a pacifist and conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, never forbade me from playing war. Shockingly to me now, he also never protested as I amassed a small arsenal of realistic-looking guns of various shapes and sizes.
One Christmas when I was 10, I used money given to me by family to buy a war rifle that made three different shooting sounds. Coincidentally, this happened the same year that O’Daddy—my mother’s father and a German who was conscripted into the Second World War—came to visit. When O’Daddy saw the gun, he didn’t even try to contain his anger and scolded me for choosing it. I hid it under my bed until he left, but I didn’t understand until much later why he was so offended.
Interestingly, according to Diane Levin—a professor of Early Childhood Education at Boston University and co-author of The Warplay Dilemma—the Cold War wasn’t the only influence on kids like me in the 1980s. War play, she says, saw an uptick at that time because late US president Ronald Reagan removed regulations that prevented children’s television shows from licensing or selling toys related to their characters or story. Before deregulation, advertising time was limited on kids’ shows; if you sold spinoff products, the whole show would have been considered a commercial. After toy makers and media companies were given free reign, merchandised entertainment ruled morning cartoons in the US—and their audience’s imaginations as well. “Teachers started seeing less creative play and more imitative play,” says Levin. “And the open-ended toys began to not sell as well.”
More to the point, Levin says the united toy and media industries used a knowledge of child psychology to make more profits. “Young children think very simply and in dichotomies—right and wrong, good and bad, boy and girl,” she says. “So violence was used to market to boys, and appearance and sexualization was used to market to girls.”
I was an avid watcher of G.I. Joe, the action show about soldiers fighting enemies who, in animated villain tradition, were a collection of psychopaths, cyborgs and femme fatales. For me and my friends, they stood in for Soviet operatives. And like a dutiful child consumer, I acquired dozens of the figurines and played out the violent plotlines with them.
When I was around age nine, my best friend Charlie and I took it to the next level and got identical, water-shooting Uzi machine guns that looked exactly like the real thing. We spent whole afternoons plotting attacks on enemy armies, and executing search-and-rescue missions for fallen troops. We got very, very wet. And at the end of those days, I’d come back home with scratches, bruises and the satisfied exhaustion of a day spent running in the sunshine. When I recall that time, the memory still brings me joy.
How could something so pleasurable be wrong? According to Lisa Fiore, a professor who teaches developmental psychology and education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., it’s not really. In fact, she cites a long list of positive impacts that imaginary violent play has on kids. “It’s part of a drive to make sense of the world,” she says. “Through it, we learn about our bodies, about winning and losing, and about fairness and friendship.”
The type of rough-and-tumble play that accompanies faux war, she says, helps kids test their physical limits and discover the boundaries of their bodies. For example, kids might learn to communicate with their friend when something hurts or when tussling becomes too scary for them. Although Fiore emphasizes that she is not a fan of real guns in real life, she understands the draw toy ones have for kids. “It gives them a sense of strength, power, mastery,” she explains, adding that it allows them to experiment with roles that deviate from their own. “Like trying on a different shirt, and then putting it back in the drawer at the end of the day.”
Fiore admits, however, that figuring out how to respond to a kid’s love of toy guns can be confusing for parents. “They think children should realize these are serious tools and do damage to people, but [toy] are also really fun to play with because they’re not real,” she says. “Both are true.” And to honour both those things, she suggests parents let their kids’ imaginations run wild, but then later explain, in an age-appropriate way, what guns do, who is allowed to have them and that there are rules around their use.
In an age when multiple mass shootings are occurring monthly in North America, it’s reasonable that parents would have worries about guns and war play. There’s no conclusive evidence that violent play fantasies lead to real violence. However, it does seem to be the case that cultural depictions of violence—all those guns in movies and books I’ve been trying to avoid—might cause behavioural problems. A 2006 Ohio State University meta-analysis of more than 400 studies found that exposure to media and video games with violent content increases children’s levels of aggressive thoughts and angry feelings, and can have a long-term effect.
Last year, the same research lab found that kids eight to 12 years old were more likely to pull the trigger of a replica gun if they’d first watched a film clip where someone shoots one. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not kids’ imaginations that we should worry so much about, but the stories told by us adults.
While Levin has long been part of pushing back against violence in media, and wasn’t crazy about her own son getting interested in pretend war, she never stopped him from shooting imaginary bad guys and, like Fiore, doesn’t think a complete shutdown of gun play is necessary. In fact, she thinks the pretending probably helped her son make sense of the violence he saw on screen. “We just tried to constantly humanize it,” she says. “Not saying, ‘No, that’s bad and you shouldn’t do it,’ but just engaging.” When the play was done, she’d ask her son about the bad guy, why he was bad, and whether there was any way to help so he won’t be bad anymore.
Still, Levin did draw the line at buying toy weapons. People often make the argument that kids will turn anything into a gun if they don’t have a realistic prop, but Levin says that creative act is far more beneficial for them. “A stick that’s made into a gun is better than a toy gun because the kid is using their imagination,” she says, explaining that the act of making one thing stand in for another is a process of learning about symbolization. A stick gun is also better for play, she adds, because it’s flexible. “It can be a gun for a few minutes, but then they can use it as a stake to tie somebody up.” The open-endedness of the object, in other words, allows for it to accommodate the child’s own storytelling.
Learning that my imagination might have been hampered by imitative war play doesn’t make me look back on it less fondly, but what does strike me as alarming now is that nobody was pausing to put the conflicts of the day into perspective. I don’t think age nine was too early, for instance, for me to learn that not all Russians are bloodthirsty psychopaths, or that killing people living in other nations isn’t the only answer to geopolitical tensions. That discussion, in addition to the more broad ones Fiore and Levin suggested, is what my wife and I plan to spark when the time comes.
For now, our diversionary tactics and media screening have held the gun play at bay. It’s been at least a month since my son has pretended to shoot anything and he never actually uses the word “gun.” I don’t kid myself that the time won’t soon come when he does these things, but at present, in the absence of an awareness of man-made killing machines, he’s channelled all his life-and-death play into animal predators—mimicking sharks on the hunt, or lions catching prey for their babies.
Since we read a book about polar wildlife, my son understands that baby snowy owls rely on their parents hunting lemmings, though he feels sad for the family of lemmings who have lost a loved one. It wasn’t easy for me to describe for the first time how this web of eating and getting eaten works, but he seems to have gotten his head around it. Teaching a kid about the food chain seems like a piece of cake, though, compared to trying to explain why humans kill each other with guns.