I admit that before my first son was even old enough to hold his own cup of water, I had decided that in order to raise a boy who would grow up to be a polite, respectful and kind man I needed to keep him as far away from toy weaponry as possible. I reasoned with myself that there were so many other wonderful ways for boys to play, that my son’s world would not be empty without the latest popgun or Nerf blaster. (I somehow blocked out the fact that as a child I loved to play in the woods near our home chasing down invisible bad guys with stick-guns and my brother’s coveted popgun.) Then a dear friend and mother of an extremely compassionate and mature teenage son set me straight. As my son zoomed through her living room in his walker, she gave me this advice.
Boys will make guns out of anything. Clothespins, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and straws will be high powered blasters that fling marshmallows, peas, and small blocks through the house. Don’t waste energy on keeping the toy guns out of their hands. Focus on teaching them the difference between reality and fantasy, and how to treat others with respect.
Will Toy Guns Make My Child Aggressive?
There has been a debate waging since about the 1970s over whether toys guns encourage violent and aggressive behavior. Some states, such as Hawaii, have taken extensive measures to try to abolish toy guns in the hands of kids. In January legislators from this serene island state tried unsuccessfully to make it a crime to sell toy guns to anyone under the age of 18. Attorney General Patrick Lynch from Rhode Island even organized an event at which parents were encouraged to bring their children (and their stashes of fake weaponry) in to destroy these contraband in exchange for more mellow toys like puzzles.
While measures like these have been taken over the years in response to an apparent rise in youth violence and aggressive behaviors by children, the evidence that ties playing with toy guns to fulfilling real acts of violence and crime just doesn’t seem to be found. In fact, researchers like Penny Holland from the University of North London go as far as to say that preventing our sons from playing with toy guns and weapons could actually be detrimental to their development and self-esteem.
Holland claims that her research, experiments, and observations actually show that using a zero tolerance approach to kids and toy guns does not turn children away from violence. Instead, it leaves kids, often boys, less motivated and “marginalized” in their development. Children use imaginative play to work through their ideas, concerns, and fantasies about how the world works. Holland goes on to say that what is being forgotten in this debate is that there is a difference between playing imaginative games that involve good vs. evil and actual displays of aggressive, violent behaviors that hurt real people.
Other researchers see a tangible link between possible innate predispositions of young males to gravitate toward using toys guns and weapons in imaginative play. As years of political correctness and women’s liberation movements have blanketed our society, the true, core differences between males and females are often blurred. While I am the grateful product of the efforts to advance the opportunities for women, I wonder how far we can go to claim that genders are equal in every way. Some researchers such as Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College feel that boys are more inclined to want to use these toy weapons because of “biological mechanisms” that influence children’s toy preferences. Maybe there is some truth to the theory of testosterone driven hunting and gathering. Perhaps comedian Tim Hawkins got it right in his rendition of the differences between boys and girls.
Should I Let My Child Play with a Toy Gun?
Authors at Family Education would prefer that you didn’t, citing various reasons such as safety concerns and the message they claim it sends to children that guns and violence are good. I admit that these were the same reasons I once cringed when a family member gave my young son a toy gun as a gift. They write that, “We don’t want kids ever to get the message that a gun is safe or something that children should use.” However, if we use this as criteria for selecting things in our children’s environment and toy box, there are WAY too many things I would have to throw out in the trash. I wouldn’t want my young child to burn himself by turning on the real stove, so should I get rid of her toy stove? The toy bin is filled with examples of items that are parts of our children’s lives. Probably more detrimental would be the loss of books from our shelves. Where would the classics be without the battle between good and evil? It is more important to allow children to use their imaginations while we teach them to be responsible and empathetic than to ban the inevitable peashooter.
- Set guidelines and rules for play with toy weapons. Kids should be taught that they are only to be used with others who want to play with them and never pointed at the face.
- Limit video games and television with real world violence. Children are able to create their own imaginary worlds without any help from the media.
- Have discussions about the difference between real guns and toy guns. For very young children you can make sure that their toy guns have distinctive looks from real guns. There are neon rainbow colored plastic guns that shoot small balls and marshmallow shooters made from plumbing. It doesn’t have to be an authentic looking six-shooter.
- Monitor your child’s play, whether it is with toy guns or baby dolls. You will most likely seem them expressing creative play, but if you notice anything of concern, don’t just take away the toys. Use them to understand what your child might be trying to tell you.
- As soon as your kids are old enough, have them attend a firearm safety class. This isn’t just for boys or hunters. These classes teach proper safety around guns – something that everyone should be aware of at the proper ages. Parents can often sit in on these classes, and from our experiences the message is always clear: real guns are not toys.
Parenting children is travelling the back roads. There are no maps or GPS coordinates available to tell us if we are on the right path. Sometimes we have to listen to our instincts, and our insightful friends, when it comes to deciding what are the best books or toys for them. While my younger boys have their foam dart battles in the basement, my oldest is on a hunting trip with Dad. They all understand and respect the absolute differences between the two. We have come a long way from my cringes at the plastic gun gift, and I am glad I loosened my reigns on the toy parameters – if only I could find a sensor that locates lost darts before the vacuum cleaner life would be a little easier around here.