Before I had kids, I swore a toy gun would never enter my home. But when my oldest son, Bode, was three, my husband brought one home without telling me. I wasn’t thrilled, but when I saw the way Bode created playful scenarios with his friends where they shot a scary imaginary bear and then took him to the hospital to “fix” him, the gun started to seem more like a harmless toy than a weapon. I allowed it to stay.
During the past year, I’ve been amazed at the excitement every boy that enters our home has over this gun. If the child has toy guns at home, he is quick to pick up Bode’s and engage in a game of good versus bad. If the child is new to guns, he is usually fascinated, carrying the toy weapon around and sometimes crying when it’s time to leave it behind and go home to his trucks and balls. What is it about boys and guns?
“Our brains are built on a hunting platform,” says Jordan Bernt Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and specialist in childhood and adult aggression. People, especially males, are hard-wired toward weaponry and taking aim at something. “Almost all of our sports are taken from this premise,” says Bernt Peterson. “There’s not too much difference from shooting a puck in a net than taking aim at a friend.” Plus, says Bernt Peterson, “it’s cruel not to allow your children to play out their instinctual wishes.”
“Around age three or four, as children are increasingly exposed to the outside world and often have to separate from their parents, they can, at times, feel fearful or insecure,” explains Nancy Carlsson-Paige, co-author of Who’s Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys (New Society Publishers). “When children pretend to play ‘good guys and bad guys,’ as they act out scenarios of good over bad, they can feel strong and empowered. This helps alleviate some of the insecurities common in the early years.”
People have a tendency to draw one-to-one correlations between toy weapons and violent behaviour, but “the idea that playing with guns will make your child aggressive is wrong beyond belief,” says Bernt Peterson. “War is a lot more complicated than a couple of four-year-olds playing with a toy gun.”
The problem with some of today’s war play, says Carlsson-Paige, is that it has become less imaginative and more media driven. Children see violence on TV and act out the scenes they see instead of creating make-believe scenarios on their own. If the storyline isn’t original, it becomes less about empowerment and more about violence. That’s when it’s time to step in.
“When my son turns his finger into a gun, my instinct is ‘How do I stop this,’” says Oakville, Ont., mom Laurie Roseland-Barnes about her five-year-old son Tyler. She admits she would be okay with her son playing guns if she knew how to direct his play in an acceptable way.
War play is a game, and all games need a referee, notes Bernt Peterson. The goal of a parent shouldn’t be to forbid the game. In fact, a no-tolerance rule can make guns more appealing. And don’t get too hung up on explaining the difference between fantasy and reality. “Children this age can’t comprehend real violence,” says Carlsson-Paige. “What is important here is for the parent to understand what the gun means to the child rather than to focus on their agenda about guns. It’s best to ask children: ‘Tell me about your gun? What does it do? What happens when you shoot it?’ Questions help a parent understand more about how their child is making sense of the gun and what it does.”
If the play seems scripted or violent, parents can take steps to help it be more creative and therefore of more value to their child by encouraging the use of open-ended materials such as boxes, blocks and paper to help encourage play options. And, if possible, avoid buying prefabricated toy weapons. “Let the idea for the weapon come from the child in the process of his own play,” suggests Carlsson-Paige. “It’s best when kids make their own props because they can make and remake them as their play evolves. Commercial war toys don’t change. The gun is always the gun.”
Nancy Ripton is a Toronto-based freelance writer and co-founder of JusttheFactsKid.com. Her sons, Bode, 4, and Beckett, 2, love to go back in time and hunt for dinosaurs.