Should you let your kids play with toy weapons? Sure, but keep them away from real ones.
My 4 year old can turn almost anything into an imaginary weapon. A piece of wooden toy train? Sure, it will take care of the bad guys. Although my son doesn’t always act out combat scenarios, he does it enough to make me wonder: is this type of game normal? Given the dire history of gun violence in this country, should I stop him? Does the gun game somehow increase the risk of one day becoming a victim or instigator of gun violence?
Firearms were the second leading cause of death for American children between the ages of 1 and 19 in 2014. On average, eight children were shot every day. Most children killed by firearms die in their homes after being shot by their parents’ guns. Worse, research suggests that no matter how insistent parents talk to their children about staying away from real guns, most parents will still grab the chance to play with them. Regardless of where we live or how safe we feel, parents must take steps to protect their children from gun violence. But the good news is that it is perfectly normal for children to pretend they are playing with guns from time to time. Aggressive play isn’t just a part of growing up – research has found it can even help children regulate themselves better in real life.
Let’s start with real guns that are the real threat to your child’s safety. If you keep a gun at home, keep it in a locked place, unloaded, with the ammunition in a separate place. That’s because over three-quarters of children – even those under the age of 10 – know where parents keep their guns, even if parents don’t believe they are. If you think: but the whole point of a gun is to keep it loaded and easily accessible in the event of a house invasion, keep in mind that every time a gun is successfully used in the house for self-defense, guns in the house are four accidental shootings, seven have caused criminal or homicides and 11 attempted or consummated suicides. In other words, a gun left unlocked and loaded for self-defense is much, much more likely to harm family members than protect them. (For more information on how guns kept in the home threaten children, see Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes, 2014 slate Piece.)
Even if you don’t own a gun, you still need to take steps to protect your children while they are with others at home. It’s certainly not a bad idea to talk to them about guns – how dangerous they are, why they should never be played with – but it’s just not enough. Marjorie Sanfilippo, a psychologist at Eckerd College in Florida, has conducted a series of terrifying experiments that show that boys and girls simply won’t listen when warned about guns. In her first study, published in 1996, she had couples of 4- to 6-year-old children play with a variety of toys, including real and toy weapons, in a room. She and a local police officer then spent 30 minutes educating one of the children in each couple about the dangers of guns – including that they should never be touched without parental permission and that children should always find an adult if they come across one . A week later, she brought the two children back together in the same room to play. “We found that the kids who had lessons played with guns just as the kids who didn’t – and they didn’t leave the area to get an adult, and they didn’t stop the friend from closing play with it. It was like they hadn’t had any class at all, ”she recalls. In a subsequent experiment, she enrolled a group of preschoolers for a week’s firearms training while another group of children had no training. Again, the intervention did not affect the children’s likelihood of playing with weapons. “There is no teaching method that can overcome this natural curiosity about weapons,” she concludes.
So, if you don’t want your kids to play with guns, make sure they can’t find any. And that means that when your child walks into someone else’s house, you’ll have to ask if they’re keeping their guns safe. If you feel uncomfortable asking this question – you may be concerned about offending the other person – remember that “People who have guns often prefer these conversations to people who don’t do, ”says Jennie Lintz, director of public health and safety at the Brady Nonprofit Center for Gun Violence Prevention. If you’re still feeling weird, try this: “Call the parents and say, ‘My son is fascinated with guns – he’s going through a phase – so I just want to make sure you don’t use real guns Have available. ‘Because then you say:’ I want to protect your child too, ‘”says Sanfilippo. If guns are not stored in a way that is convenient for you, invite the child over to your home instead.
Let’s get to the children’s game. Although both boys and girls exhibit aggression in their play, the fact is that boys do so much more often, especially when they are playing with other boys. (The causes of these differences are discussed.) Most of the time, this type of game is normal and can even be useful. In a 2013 study, researchers observed preschoolers playing alone with different objects and then observing the same children in their classrooms. They found that the more oral aggression the children displayed, the less aggressive their behavior in the classroom was – for example, pretending to bite or eat each other’s cuddly toys. The researchers speculate that by integrating violence into their role play, children can learn to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions. Other work recently written by academic psychologists even went so far as to argue that preventing child struggles could affect their social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and communicative development. While we cannot be sure that this relationship is causal – it is possible that more socially mature children simply tend to play more aggressively – one thing is clear: “Aggressive behavior in role play is different from actual aggressive behavior in real life. “Says co-author and child psychologist Sandra Russ of Case Western Reserve University.
Certainly, however, not every aggressive game is normal or healthy. If your child hurts other children while playing, it may be a sign of an impulse control problem and it is worth talking to a pediatrician. It also matters whether your child is using their imagination. If he just takes a toy and hits another toy with it for five minutes, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of narrative, then that could be cause for concern too.
The more creative a child’s game, the better – so it’s not necessarily good for your child to repeat the same script scene from The Lego Movie over and over again. Instead, encourage them to improvise. Ask her questions and encourage her to write new stories. “Imitation isn’t really a game, and if it’s not really a game, kids aren’t really working on the things they need to work on,” said Diane Levin, an early education specialist at Wheelock College in Boston and author of The War Play Dilemma. Levin adds that if there are aspects of your child’s play that you are uncomfortable with – maybe your child is always talking about “killing” bad guys and that makes you flinch – try to engage and maybe even divert your child , although it may not always work. “Say, ‘It sounds like … [the bad guy] did something really bad – what did he do? ‘ Or, ‘Is there anything else you can do other than kill?’ Or, ‘Can we do something to help evil become good?’ Take the lead from your child, but if they let you go, then accept them. “
As for the gun game, “Children will make guns out of sticks and clay, and that’s fine – it’s like,” says Russ. It is best not to stop them because that could put them to shame. Also, Sanfilippo says, “If you make it too big, they’ll want to do it more, and they’ll do it behind your back.”
And while most experts say toy and spray guns are fine, Russ points out that for the small subset of kids who have difficulty separating game from reality or who have impulse control issues, be realistic toy and spray guns that may not look like that are a good idea.
So pretending that the gun game is generally okay and might even make kids less violent – hooray, one less thing to worry about. Indeed, it might be something to celebrate for some other reason. If your child is fighting “bad guys” they are likely pretending to be a good guy, even a superhero, and that’s empowering and heroic. “It’s the way boys deal with being in a group and dealing with the fear of being little boys,” says child psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. “They want to be strong and big, and they want to do it with a stick or a sword.” Or a gun, of course.
In addition to the sources mentioned, The Kids would like to thank Alex Dubroff.