Monday, June 22, 2009

Gun Play and Boys: Yay or Nay?

After I wrote about the contents of our toyroom, another boy mama wrote in with a question:

OMG! My son just (to my horror!) discovered ... guns! It's a total fixation since we were visiting another pal of mine with an older boy. I'm hoping it passes. I'm a big fan of gun control ... even the toys ones. Any advice for steering a 3 yr old away from the firearms?

She reminds me of me eight short (or is that long?) years ago.

Our oldest son was three, and up to that point, we'd sheltered him from toy guns. I grew up in a no-toy-gun household, even though I had four brothers; our squirt guns were animals or empty syrup bottles, never miniature guns. My husband was a former Marine (and an excellent shot), but I saw no need for my son to PLAY with something meant to cause death and destruction.

Then we moved into our house. The house came with excellent neighbors, but with the neighbors came toy guns. My son loved them -- the neighbors AND the guns.)

What was I to do? If I banned toy guns all together, my son would be left out of most neighborhood games. (Did I mention the high boy population in my neighborhood?) And even if I banned them, the damage was done: he'd seen the guns and he wanted one.

My husband -- a former boy himself -- advised me to not make it a big deal. Make it big deal, he said, and you'll only make things worse.

So I nervously watched while my innocent child played guns. I drafted an essay about his fascination with guns, and breathed a sigh of relief a few days later when I wrapped it up: After days of intense interest, the plastic gun lay forgotten next to the toy box while my son once again watched Elmo.

If only I was to be so lucky.

That same son is now 11, and his favorite channel on TV is the Military Channel. Guns are no longer his weapon of choice; he'd much rather wield a light saber when saving the world. He does, however, have a BB gun and pellet gun and enjoys shooting targets in the garage.

So no -- I don't have any advice for steering a three-year-old away from guns. I do have some reassuring words, though. A fascination with guns does not mean your son is going to turn into a crazed homicidal maniac. It doesn't mean that your son is someday going to shoot up his school. It doesn't even mean he'll become a hunter.

Lest you think I'm making this up, the research backs me up on this one:

  • Gun play helps boys learn the difference between real violence and fantasy violence. So says a study published in the American Journal of Play. Boys, as we've discussed before, are biologically prone to aggression. Pretend gun play gives them a chance to experiment with aggression and power without actually hurting anyone. It also gives them the chance to play the hero.

  • Playing with guns helps boys develop a sense of their masculinity. I know -- I'm doubtful about this one too. But the author of the same study suggests that "boys' play with guns is in, part, an important test or proof of their masculinity."

  • Gun play helps boys process real violence. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, co-author of, Who's Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys, says,"If parents 'ban' gun play, they run the risk of cutting off a valuable vehicle children need for processing the violence [because] kids use their play to make meaning of what they have expereienced in life, and in this case, of the violence they have seen." (Which can include everything from cartoons to TV shows, video games and books.)

What do you think? Do you think playing with guns inspires violence? What's the gun control policy at your house?


  1. I was a fervent anti-gun mom, until I realized that in every other way Padawan Learner was a nice, friendly, considerate and socially well-adjusted child. He liked playing pretend shoot 'em up games in the back yard with the neighbor kids when he was 3, still likes playing them at nearly 14, and has remained a sweet kid despite his growing plastic arsenal. That said, I do draw the line at realistic violence on video games.

  2. Like you, Jennifer, my wife and I tried to keep toy guns out of our house and yard for a long time.

    Eventually, we learned that was futile. Boys have imagination. That makes almost anything available a toy gun.

    The neighborhood boys mostly have toy guns and we weren't going to keep our boys from playing with thier friends.

    We talk to our boys very frankly about the reality of war and weaponry. To them, the play is imaginative adventure. That is fantastic. I am constantly amazed at what their minds dream up. But we also make sure they know the horrible ramifications of real war and violence. (in an age-appropriate manner of course)

    So, we let them play. They know it is only play.

    Now toy light-sabres...the day they got those, they were confiscated after the boys smacked each other within an hour of receiving them. LOL

  3. Boy, this is a tough topic---glad you're trying to tackle it instead of me, Jennifer!

    I grew up with a pistol on the dining room table (my dad worked in law enforcement), rifles and shotguns under our beds, and I even helped my Dad make his own bullets when he was a competitive shooter. I don't remember having many toy weapons around the house growing up because there were always real ones. We were always safe and I believe that education trumps restrictions.

    But now I get sweaty when I walk by the gun cabinet in my father's bedroom, see too much violence on television, and watch little boys (and sometimes) girls simulate violence for entertainment, whether with real or imaginary Star Wars weapons.

    So my childhood and my present collide and I can't reconcile the two. Too much running through my veins, I guess!

  4. Obi-Mom -- For me, it was the same thing: realizing they were still sweet kids despite their tendency to play war games with plastic weapson.

    Nate -- I hear you on the lightsabers! Boys LOVE them, but really, the whole point is to whack each other with them, which inevitably leads to someone being hurt.

    Ron -- If you were tackling it instead of me, the whole thing would be much more amusing. :)

  5. Interesting! We were anti-guns until light sabers came along. Light sabers were out gateway weapons, and after that laser tag guns soon followed. I draw the line at realistic guns, but as long as it's futuristic or brightly colored or in some way fantastical, I am now tolerating it. :)

  6. There will always be two sides in this debate. Personally I am divided, too. I am still hesitant about buying my little boys toy guns. Half of me believes that what they play with in childhood will have an effect on how they handle certain things in adulthood. But on the other hand, I know that even if you don't give your kids toy guns, if they turn out psychotic when they are grownups, there's still no stopping them from getting guns and killing people. Oh well.