Should kids play with toy guns?

Worries over war games may be, well, jumping the gun

One of my most treasured childhood playthings was a toy rifle. It didn’t shoot, but you’d get this satisfying bang when you pulled the trigger. I played happily with the thing for hours, often with buddies, cooking up various war scenarios. “Let’s play guns,” we used to say.

As an adult, I have no interest in guns, and last time I hit somebody was in grade nine. That life experience inevitably informs my perspective on the “toy gun debate,” something I first heard about long before I became a father. It resurfaced at Today’s Parent recently when a reader objected to promotion of toy guns implied by an anecdote about a father and son “shooting” monsters each night before bed.

I don’t buy that kids pretending to shoot things, or playing with toy guns or soldiers, builds a violent society (unless other factors come into play). But I do think it’s a healthy discussion. The questioning of war toys has helped to create an anti-violence message to counteract the pro-violence images kids get from TV, movies and video games.

However, some people misunderstand the role violence-oriented fantasy plays in children’s lives. They see it as practising to be violent. I think it provides an outlet to help kids sort out feelings they can’t express to adults.

I have vivid childhood memories about how scary the world sometimes seemed. I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the bad dreams it gave me. I also remember thinking that most adults seemed to feel they could boss kids around any time they wanted. Looking back, I think pretend gun play gave me a way to feel just a tiny bit powerful — at least in fantasy.

I’m not saying gun or war play is the only way for kids to deal with their fears. But fantasy play — sometimes with violent themes — is one of the ways they deal with them.

Obviously, the world has changed since my boyhood. There is a heightened and totally justified concern about violence. Children are exposed to much more brutal violence via TV, video games and movies. In fact, I’m more concerned about media violence than pretend gun play.

So questioning toy guns is legitimate. But I also think it’s possible for adults to go too far to restrict children’s war-like play. And I wouldn’t want idealistic parents to think there is something wrong if their little boy wants to play that way.

Our family didn’t have a hard-core no-guns policy, we just didn’t buy any — apart from several Super Soakers and a couple of NERF guns that shot foam darts and balls. Mind you, a few toy swords and dozens of action figures made it into our house. Our boys and their friends used them in battle scenarios, which we saw no reason to stop because they weren’t becoming fighters in real life.

Further, these guys all grew up in families where they got a strong message that violence was not valued. Their parents did not hit them. They did not see hockey fighters or action-movie heroes held up as ideals of manhood, nor did they hear their fathers talking about wanting to deck some guy. And they knew their parents — particularly their mothers — were uncomfortable with toy guns. All of that helped shape the decidedly non-violent men they have become.

It’s not up to me to tell anyone whether to let their kids play with toy guns, but it’s a fallacy that pretend gun play always promotes the real thing. As with most experiences that affect a child’s development, context is everything.

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