Family

The Great Toy Gun Debate

It's not the plastic that's contributing to kid violence

When my children were very small, particularly my son, I did not allow toy weapons in our Northern Virginia home — especially toy guns.

This was not because I felt very strongly about the issue, but more that I thought I was supposed to ban anything and everything associated with violence from my kids’ childhoods.

The current parenting climate tells us that by keeping plastic water guns away from our toddlers, they are less likely to grow up to shoot up the local shopping mall. I never really bought into this philosophy, but I went along with it because I was the kind of mother who worried about being judged by other mothers, and this was a hot-button issue.

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I have since changed my stance on worrying about what other moms think of my parenting, as well as my stance on toy guns.

My son, who is now 7, has never been obsessed with guns — toy or real — but he, like most little boys, enjoys play-acting battle scenes, “wars,” and good guy vs. bad guy. These are natural, healthy forms of play for children, and we as parents should allow this exploration and should use it as a chance to talk openly about the dangers of real guns, and about right and wrong. We talk about guns in our home, and our children understand the real threat they pose, and know what to do if they ever see a gun.

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We live in an increasingly violent society, and it is important to observe children’s behavior and watch for signs of violent tendencies. There is a difference between enjoying a friendly Nerf battle with friends at the park and shooting paintballs at an innocent cat. While it is normal for young boys to use toy guns in pretend play, a child who seems genuinely interested in inflicting harm should raise alarm bells in any parent.

Take note of the discrepancy and address this behavior with a professional. Dr. Michael Thompson, clinical psychologist and author of nine books, including “Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys,” takes a straightforward approach to the issue of play versus violence.

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“People always ask me about the problem of ‘violent play’ and I say, ‘There is no such thing.’ Violence is violence; it is meant to hurt people. Play is play. It is fun and consensual. If you see children trying to hurt each other, you should stop it. If you see children having fun, you shouldn’t interfere, even if you don’t like the themes of the play.”

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According to Dr. Thompson, parents “should focus on whether their children have friends, whether they treat their parents, grandparents and family friends with respect. Do they love the family pets? If they treat their friends well and respect their elders and love the family’s pets, let them play. Are men who play poker or bet on golf a threat to their families? Probably not. That’s play for them. Can college students play beer pong and still be good students, good boyfriends and good sons? Most of them. Play is play.”

In the case of violent tendencies, it isn’t the toy gun that is the real issue. When asked if keeping children away from toy guns has an impact on future violence, Dr. Thompson has this to say. “No. What causes future violence is raising children in families with domestic violence, raising children in neighborhoods with gangs; boys who see actual violence, that is live, in-person violence, are very much at risk for committing violent acts themselves. Boys who play with toy swords and toy guns are not.”

Today’s children are also spending more and more time playing violent video games. Their brains are becoming desensitized to violence and death on the screen, and can skew their sensitivity to the consequences of violence in real life.

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I would much rather send my son outside to play with his Nerf guns than allow him to sit on the couch alone, inflicting virtual violence ad infinitum. Real, firm limits need to be set on the content and time management of video games for young boys.

While it is understandable to want to steer young boys’ interests away from weapons and violence, keeping them from these toys is not addressing any real issue in our society. Kicking a child out of kindergarten for biting his ham sandwich into the shape of a pistol is in no way helping that child or preventing future violence. Taking water guns away from kids on the playground is not affecting violent crime rates in the United States.

As parents, we most definitely need to teach our kids about gun safety and, most importantly, respecting human life. But we also need to let them play. Boys will be boys, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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