Until my daughter was seven and my son nearly five, I had strict principles about guns. A former peace activist, I refused to allow guns, weapons or camouflage clothing in the house (even the pink kind). I banned all screen violence – live-action, animated, passive viewing, interactive playing – and my kids knew better than to yell “I’m going to kill you” in jest. When Finn was three, I went as far as to meticulously pluck dozens of miniature pirate swords and pistols from his pirate ship set.
My son had other ideas. By the time he was two, I often found him toddling across the room beating a ball, or anything roundish, with anything resembling a stick. The stick evolved into a “shooting thing,” and when he found no suitable weapons in his toybox, he made his own: paper towel tubes hitched together with masking-tape, construction paper swords, or his small hand formed into the iconic barrel and trigger. “It’s not a gun, Mom. It’s the letter L!”
“Guns hurt people.”
“This isn’t a real gun.”
“I know, but it’s not fun to play at hurting people. Hurting people is wrong.”
“This can’t hurt anyone. There’s nothing inside.”
This was a child who wept over picture books, who had never hit, punched, slapped or spit at another child. He was enormously empathic – and enormously drawn to guns.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, we watched Star Wars. Around the time when Darth Vader chokes his minion, I protested. My husband paused the movie: “Fine. We can just stop this and they can watch movies about rainbows and ponies for the rest of their lives.”
Within a week, we had three light sabers, and my daughter and son sparred in the hallway like seasoned Jedi. I dug out the sword to his pirate costume, returned the nano-weapons, and let him go to the Dark Side for Halloween. He and a friend spent most of the night engaged in an epic battle with the Evil Fog Machine.
I like to think that my actions involved more than just caving to popular culture. As I watched my children cross sabers, I liked the confidence it gave them – especially my daughter. I liked how they matched each other blow for blow, and how they were careful not to inflict real harm on each other (or the furniture). They were fierce, but they were also controlled.
There are two schools of thought about war play. One argues that war play meets developmental needs; the other believes it teaches militaristic values. But Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who has written extensively on the dangers of media violence and war toys for young children, warns that not all war play is created equal. Some war play arises from children’s imagination and a natural curiosity about weapons and fighting. Other war play re-enacts scenarios from film, TV, video games and the nightly news. It’s not hard to figure out which gives more cause for concern.
The developmental camp believes that war play can foster feelings of power and competence. Pretend fighting requires assertiveness and impulse control; it can help teach limits. Dramatic role play allows children to inhabit different points of view, requires them to confront consequences, and teaches the differences between fantasy and reality. In some circumstances, war play provides a safe space for confronting fears about real-world violence.
But war play can be damaging, especially when it mirrors inappropriate levels of violence that are regularly marketed to young children through visual media and related toys. Graphic dismemberments, ultra-realistic looking weapons, and uber-violent destruction are made to look like fun, and young children play by re-scripting violence that has been stripped of historical, social and moral contexts. This kind of adult-directed play stifles creativity, emotional engagement and problem solving. Media and marketing tie-ins encourage children to collect entire worlds of accessories, many of which have “functional fixedness” (they’re programmed to do only one thing). Children become consumers instead of creative and compassionate thinkers.
So while it would be extreme to ban war play altogether, I also won’t give my children free reign over the remote control and the toy aisles. Experts say that limiting a child’s exposure to violent media is crucial. Karen J. Hall, an activist and researcher, argues that children should learn about war – but in appropriate historical, social and political contexts. When her children play violent games, she talks with them about why war can seem exciting and fun, as well as how it is boring, painful, destructive and scary. Academic Kirsten Saxton, who has written about female murderers, takes a dual-view: allowing her son to play with swords but not with toy versions of weapons currently used for killing people in their ‘hood (i.e., no guns). Actively facilitating war play, while perhaps distasteful for a parent, can ensure safety, foster creative problem solving, and directly influence a child’s social, moral and political development – which may be preferable to leaving this to forces outside the home.
Some war play really is illusory; it isn’t necessarily about hurting or killing anybody, nor even about beating up the bad guy. War play can be about the thrill of mastering technology, controlling physical conflict, and feeling powerful. It’s a way to engage subconscious conflicts between good and evil. We know that superheroes and villains don’t exist, but pretending for an afternoon that they do connects us to a powerful, human mythology and the beginnings of moral understanding.
Jennifer Trainor, an award winning academic and tenured professor at San Francisco State University, suspects that there is little connection between her kindergartener, Charlie’s, boyhood fascination with violence and actual violence. His pressing questions about war exhibit the kind of moral concerns that should be foundational in any child’s political education: “What makes bad guys bad? How do people get brave? What do bullets do to your body? And how do different kinds of weapons get invented?” In the context of the most urgent concerns about war toys, Charlie’s war play is not only healthy, but the Nerf Strike Blaster that Trainor bought him for Christmas may be a far more innocuous toy than my daughter’s Zhu Zhu pet.