Bigger Kids

The debate: Do you let your kids play with toy guns?

Stephen Marche and Alexandria Durrell face off on the contentious topic of kids and toy guns.

By Stephen Marche
The debate: Do you let your kids play with toy guns?

Photo: RichVintage/iStockphoto

"Yes, I let my kids play with toy guns" Stephen Marche, dad of two

I suppose in a perfect world, a blissful state of pure parenting theory, I would not want my son to play with toy guns. I would prefer for him and his friends to pretend to organize conferences for world peace instead of destroying massive, unreal armies of faceless enemies with imaginary artillery. But parenthood is the phase of life when you realize just how little your preferences matter. Little boys with guns are yet another moment when beleaguered resignation is by far the best course.

You may not want to buy your son a gun. You may forbid toy guns from your house. But if you have a boy, and you buy a banana at the grocery store, he will find a way to turn it into a gun. I have seen boys at my son’s daycare fold over Barbie dolls to turn them into pistols. Boys will use a leaf pile to mimic the explosions of grenades. They will turn gift-wrap tubes into bazookas. At university, I was told that these actions were the result of “cultural expectations” imposed through “social norms.” All I can say is my son sure didn’t get it from me. I don’t know a single person who owns a gun. I live in a downtown Toronto neighbourhood, where the residents’ values fully live up to any airy-fairy stereotypes you might care to impose; the kid ain’t exactly growing up in West Texas. And yet, for a mercifully brief phase around age three, whatever happened to be in my son’s hands became a gun.

In all honesty, I don’t know why boys turn everything and anything into instruments of deadly force. My suspicion is that boys are inherently violent. I don’t know if my infant daughter will want to play with toy guns. (My understanding is that all little girls want to be princesses, which is equally upsetting and inevitable.) But part of turning our little boys into men means teaching them to understand and control that violence. Pretending their aggressive nature doesn’t exist or, worse, teaching them to hide it, is foolish; much better, when they’re a bit older, to take them to the war museum. Show them what happens with all those guns. That makes the dream of those pretend peace conferences a little nearer. "No, I don't let my kids play with toy guns" Alexandria Durrell, mom of two

You know that awkward moment when you’re having a playdate with a friend’s kids and they pull out the Nerf guns, but your three-year-old has no idea what they’re for? Well, I do. That’s because we’ve implemented a no-toy-weapons policy at our house. This extends from giant water guns, down to those miniscule guns that come with Lego Minifigures. No weapons, no war play. No, we’re not hippies, despite our suspiciously pacifist tendencies. So why are we such buzz kills when it comes to our kids playing with toy weapons? Let me explain.

Our kids are currently five and two. Sure, our son displays rougher behaviour than our daughter, but we try to curb this by encouraging other types of play. Our daughter has no interest in domestic play; no baby dolls, no play kitchen, no Barbies. So if this stereotypically feminine behaviour isn’t preloaded into our daughter’s DNA, why would we assume violent play is necessarily hard-wired into our son? It isn’t. He is definitely more likely than our daughter to mimic the fighting behaviours he sees in movies, and has aimed at us with his pudgy fists and said, “Pew! Pew! Pew!,” but we deter the violence by distracting him with some other game or activity.

When people suggest that we’re somehow stifling our son’s “boyness” by not allowing toy weapons, we laugh. Were we stifling our daughter by denying her that water gun last summer? Doubtful. So why, then, should we enable violent play for our son? Think of the gender role assumptions and insecurities we would be perpetuating if we attempted to “toughen him up” from toddlerhood onwards. What message are we sending kids when we’re forever encouraging them to be kind and reminding them to be gentle, but still providing them with plastic weapons?

If our son wants to exert his strength, he can do so by chucking a ball across the lawn. If he needs to destroy something, he can knock over a a block tower or fort he has built. But if he wants to pretend to kill something? That’s where we draw the line. No gun play in this house, ever.

This article was originally published on Jun 22, 2012

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