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My 3-year-son Tener is sitting at the dining room table, coloring next to his big sister. “What are you drawing, Ten?” I ask, while staring into my screen. “A gun,” he replies, not looking up. “Oh, that’s nice,” I say, relatively unfazed by his creative choice.
His sister smirks at me. She remembers how not long ago, I would’ve maybe tried to redirect either one of them if they’d been talking, playing, or even drawing guns.
But in truth, the question of whether or not to allow my kids to play “guns” is not something I had to think much about until the past couple of years. When kids on the playground would play guns, my daughter would find something else to do. It just wasn’t of interest. But almost as soon as my son could speak, “gun” was on the tip of his tongue. He wanted to play with the other kids who were playing guns. He’d lose his mind if someone had a toy gun to play with because he wanted it for himself.
He has a few weapons at home — a wooden sword from the Renaissance Festival, a lightsaber he got for Christmas, and tons of superhero costumes — the same as his big sister. But intentionally, I had never bought any toy guns or allowed them in our home when he asked. To me, it felt wrong and dangerous to turn gun violence — a very real and serious issue, especially in America — into a game. I fiercely believe that we need common-sense gun control laws in our country. Nearly every time we flip on the news, there’s another mass shooting. How could I, in good conscience, allow that kind of play?
Regardless of the fact that we kept guns out of our home, and my son didn’t play violent video games or watch frightening stuff on TV, his interest still budded on its own. If he went to a friend’s house, he’d go straight for their Nerf guns and hold on tight until I picked him up. He’d shoot me dead with his pointer finger while I sat on the couch and then laugh at a job well done. For the record, he’d also shoot “fire” at me, burning me to the ground, or defeat me in just about any way he enjoyed. But shooting remained of high interest, too.
I started to look into the issue with a more open mind. I picked up Gerard Jones’s book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. In it, he talks specifically about this kind of play and even suggests that it actually benefits kids.
According to the book, studies showed that in British preschools when kids were allowed to play with toy guns, their games became more aggressive in the short-term, but that they were actually more relaxed later in the day. So playing fantastical games didn’t impact kids negatively or make them more aggressive. You could even say that they got their aggression out by having the freedom to play how they chose.
Some studies have suggested that watching violent shows or playing violent video games encourages violent behavior (not just play), but high amounts of screen time no matter the content, has been shown to have the same result. And it’s no surprise that context matters, too. If kids have a violent home life, their violent tendencies go up. But if they have safe surroundings and are simply playing these kinds of games, they remain just that — games.
I’m certainly not the only modern mother to have grappled with the question of gun play. Jamie Beth Schindler, mother of an 8-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy, says they are strictly a “no gun family.” But when her son brought a Nerf toy home from a friend’s house, she was faced with a dilemma.
Ultimately, she decided not to make big deal out of it. She allowed the toy, even though she wasn’t thrilled with it coming into their home. “Instead, we explained why we didn’t like guns and gun play and left our kids to work through the choices they were making.” But the toy gun didn’t last long anyway. “My kid lost all the bullets and broke the gun and I ended up throwing it out. I thought I’d react more strongly, but in the end, I think my kids got the message that we don’t think guns are fun or funny.”
Of course, the issue of toy guns can have dangerous implications — especially for people of color. In 2014, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police for being in possession of a toy gun. And in 2016, in my own city of Baltimore, Maryland, a black 13-year-old boy was shot and injured near a local community center for the same. As a white mom living on the outskirts of the city with two white kids, I have to be honest: Imagining my son getting shot by police for having a toy gun is not something I’ve really thought about. But I have to acknowledge that these tragedies can — and do — happen, and they’re a very real concern for families of color.
So no, I’m not running out to Target to buy all the toy guns on the shelf for my son. And I’ll probably draw the line if he one day gets one as a gift. But I also realize that practically anything can become a “gun.” My son can cut a toy gun out of cardboard (and has). He can shoot me with a stick (and has). And he can play with toy guns at his friend’s houses when I’m not around (and believe me, he does).
When it comes to imaginative games and fantastical play, I won’t stand in his way … unless, of course, I’m instructed to be in the line of fire. In that case, I’ll probably just play along.