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My Son Plays with Toy Guns

Should I let him?

by Keri Fisher

December 23, 2009

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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.”

My Son Plays with Toy Guns

Should I let him?

by Keri Fisher

December 23, 2009

400x236.jpg

Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and consultant at FamilyEducation.com, thinks that attitudes like Steffanie’s are unnecessarily restrictive. “I would not worry about utilizing other play objects as guns,” he says, “I would be far more concerned about teaching [how to] resolve conflict through non-violent means than I would about occasional fantasy gunplay.” In other words, make it clear that the gunplay is fantasy, and that in the real world we should try to solve conflict with words rather than weapons.

“You can try to withhold them all you want,” says my friend Jim Stringer, father to 8-year-old Simon and 6-year-old Patrick in Melrose, Mass., “but it’s amazing how a loaf of bread can become a bazooka, a stick can become a machine gun, and a recorder can become a pistol.”

Zoe Weil, president of the Institute for Humane Education, agrees with the “allowing but not encouraging” approach. “Forbidding toy weapons makes them more coveted and appealing,” she says. This is basically the approach we take in our house, by stressing that swords are for hitting other swords, not other people. If one of the boys hits the other with a weapon, we take it away immediately.

Mother of three Sally Murphy, who was raised in England but now lives in Ardmore, Penn., isn’t as worried about toy guns as she is about real ones. “My concern is that if a child is familiar with a realistic looking toy gun,” she explains, “and should happen upon an actual gun, that child would not recognize or understand the difference between toy and real.”

It’s amazing how a loaf of bread can become a bazooka, a stick can become a machine gun, and a recorder can become a pistol. I’ve heard this response often. Yes, it scares me to think of my children stumbling across a real gun and shooting someone with it. But the fact is, any young child no matter how many toy guns he or she has at home will probably play with that found gun. That doesn’t mean it’s not a valid issue, but it’s one every parent needs to address, whether or not allow toy weapons at home.

Though my sons stare at me blankly whenever I talk about gun safety and the difference between real and pretend guns, I stress it anyway. It’s an uphill battle, though, because they’re far too young to comprehend the difference. But in a few years they’ll be old enough to understand. If they’re still interested in guns by then, we will take them to a shooting range for a lesson on gun safety.

In all likelihood, Declan will lose interest in toy guns, just like he lost interest in dressing up like a princess or wearing one glove all the time. But even if he doesn’t, I’m okay with that. As long as he promises to stop shooting his sister.

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This article was written by Keri Fisher for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.

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