Dear Don’t Shoot,
Do they do any harm? It depends on who you ask. The anti-toy-gun camp cites two potential negative outcomes of gunplay: increased aggression, and confusion with real guns. The They’re-Just-Playing camp argue that kids (especially boys) are just working out narratives about good and evil, and as long as they aren’t hurting one another, it’s perfectly healthy. After all, and as you pointed out, kids have acted out battles (cowboys, pirates, stormtroopers, orcs) for centuries, and very few actually grow up to be murderers. (Or orcs.)
According to a U.K. study, 60-70% of boys and one third of girls in the U.K. and U.S. play with aggressive toys (guns included). Meanwhile, a recent study in Pediatrics magazine says 70% of parents think gunplay is “never okay.” Zero-tolerance for guns has been adopted over recent years by parents and schools, not only for toy guns themselves, but for any kind of gun-themed play. Many parents (including us) appreciate this hard-line policy, though it can have some extreme results (an eight-year-old being hauled into court for holding up an L-shaped piece of paper in a game of Cops & Robbers, for example). But is zero tolerance necessary, or realistic, at home?
To some degree, gunplay is inevitable. Even if you don’t buy toy guns or let your kids use them in your presence, they will probably come across some plastic artillery eventually. They will see images, hear stories or listen to songs about guns – Toy Story, Babar and a Johnny Cash children’s song about a bear hunter come to mind. And there’s always the imagination. Sometimes a banana is just a banana . . . sometimes it’s a sub-machine gun. Parents of multiple kids often find that the older ones introduce themes of violence to younger siblings in a way they simply cannot control. There’s also the idea that a total outlawing can make the whole thing seem even more appealing (this probably varies from kid to kid). Of course, not all toy guns are created equal. The least controversial ones look nothing at all like real weapons, with bright colors and cheerful, biomorphic shapes. Toy guns with projectiles are generally considered less safe, since even seemingly harmless flying objects can sometimes cause freak accidents.
Toy guns are sometimes defended as a safe outlet for kids’ natural urges toward aggressive play, dispelling the need for actual aggression. But a study from Brandeis University counters this theory, saying that the more kids play with guns, the more likely they are to show real aggression, not just pretend aggression. But the study reported that toy gun use was the second biggest factor: more important was how the parents managed their own aggression. In other words, it’s unlikely that gunplay alone is going to turn your child into a violent offender. If you, as a parent, provide a good example of non-violent behavior, your kids are much less likely to extrapolate gun games into something truly aggressive.
But while some use many of the above reasons to just go out and buy a real (toy) gun, others think that making a dedicated purchase is a sign of your approval. There is a distinction, in other words, between encouragement and tolerance. We tend to lean towards the tolerance side.
If you do decide to allow a toy gun into your house (thanks for the birthday gift, Uncle War-Hawk), the most important thing you can do is teach your child that pretend violence is different from real violence and that toy guns are different than real guns. Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, argues that play is separate from violence; your job is to help the child understand the difference between the two. Explain that real guns are dangerous weapons and can hurt people. This is especially important for children who may eventually see real guns in real life. Speaking of which, the NRA suggests teaching your child the following protocol if they ever see a real gun:
* don’t touch
* remove yourself from the area
* tell an adult
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