M y five-year-old son, Declan, is waving a toy pistol at his baby sister as she pulls sandwich bags out of a box. Molly smiles, and Declan retreats, galloping out of the kitchen to continue playing elsewhere, my pleas to not shoot an unarmed baby trailing after him like dust behind his hobby horse.
This behavior is par for the course in our house, where Declan and his 4-year-old brother Ronan are more likely to be found engaged in battle than in building blocks. I never thought I’d be the kind of mom who would allow her kids to play with guns. I grew up surrounded by women in a home where play was dominated by Barbie. But by age two, Declan was obsessed with pirates. His first gun came in a dollar store pirate set that we bought for the eye patch, hook, and bandana; we figured he’d play with the gun for a few minutes and then it would break and we’d be done with it. That gun is still a favorite, even though it’s wrapped with duct tape from years of overuse.
But when he intentionally shoots his baby sister, I start to wonder: have I been too lax?
Most of Declan’s free time is spent dressing up as a knight or a pirate or soldier, packing a fake sword and galloping through the house on a quest to rescue a maiden or vanquish a villain. I love that Declan is imaginative this way. When we went on a family trip to Mount Vernon, Declan convinced his dad to buy him a Revolutionary War pistol at the gift shop. He uses the pistol to pretend he’s George Washington, fighting the Redcoats, or to defend his cousin, Princess Gretchen, from an imaginary but deadly-sounding “Mean Guy.” Who says toy guns and swords are all bad?
Not England’s Department for Children, Schools, and Families, which issued a report in October 2007 called “Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements.” In it, experts advised schools to allow children to engage in fantasy play involving weapons: “Creating situations so that boys’ interests in these forms of play can be fostered through healthy and safe risk-taking will enhance every aspect of their learning and development.”
But not everyone agrees. A study from Brandeis University, published in October 1992 in the journal Early Education and Development, found that toy gunplay can lead to aggressive behavior. Researcher Malcolm Watson, chairman of the school’s psychology department, wrote, “The more a child plays with toy guns, the more real aggression and the less pretend aggression will be exhibited.” This flies in the face of one theory I’ve heard in parenting circles about the alleged benefits of toy guns, that playing with pretend weapons allows children to channel their aggression in a healthy way.
Not that I need a reason to let my boys play with weapons; the fact is, I see guns and swords as little more than dress-up props, tools to help them act out whatever elaborate scenes their minds create. But I’m in the minority; no matter what some studies say, most of my friends don’t approve of toys guns. And they aren’t shy about telling me. My friend Steffanie Seccol of Wynnewood, Penn., whose son, Evan, is four, told me point blank, “We throw the guns out of Lego sets, return birthday gifts that are pirate sets with swords and guns and reprimand him when he makes the gun shape with his fingers.”