Like many parents, you may be torn between allowing your kids to play with the toy guns they’re clearly drawn to, and fearing it’ll turn them into violent psychopaths.
Why do kids—and boys, especially—gravitate towards guns?
Studies show that boys and girls have different styles of play, especially between the ages of three and six.
Boys gravitate more toward active play with themes of fighting and weaponry.
Whereas in general, girls are more interested in princesses and family-type stories & games that involve nurturing and caring for others.
While a generation of parents have been consciously giving their sons baby dolls to play with and their daughters toy lorries & science kits , in an attempt to break away from the traditional stereotypes, the good news, is that a love for pretend weapons doesn’t mean your child is turning into a violent person.
In fact, there are developmental benefits.
The kind of imaginative play that boys are drawn to is choreographed—they’re learning role-playing and empathy.
If there’s no intent to harm and if it’s fun and mutually enjoyable, it can actually teach boys self-control and self-regulation.
Learning how to co-create a narrative with their play partner— ‘pretend this’, ‘pretend that’—is actually important for them.
‘Talk & Teach’ your kids to handle conflict in a peaceful way using their words & show them how to negotiate & reason.
Most boys outgrow this behaviour by around the age of five or six, and for many it morphs into a love of sport.
I hope this helps to reassure you – as obviously you don’t want to normalise violence, but instead teach your sons that they can handle conflict in a peaceful way using words, kindness, patience and reason.
Also be mindful of what they watch on TV or tablets – as there are correlations to watching violence and what they are learning from that.
But despite your efforts, kids will often transform branches into guns, lolly sticks, loo rolls – (what I’ve learned from 25 years of teaching is that anything can be turned into a weapon) and they’re often drawn to toy swords during playdates too!
Pause to Ponder if water guns are OK in your family because they don’t look like actual guns (& you can call them “blasters.”)
The key, is monitoring your child’s play and ensuring it’s a positive experience. If it turns cruel and persistent, that’s when you need to step in.
Ask yourself, ‘Is there cruelty and abuse, or is it just competitive, conquering kind of play?’ The latter is normal.
And then, there are the superheroes.
Superheroes have such meaning for little boys as it’s a way of identifying with someone who’s brave, who doesn’t shy away from danger & it’s about someone who has these wonderful talents and attributes used for good in the world. In stories like Star Wars, it’s always good triumphing over evil. Those are positive values.
So relax & encourage imaginative play that’s well regulated and reciprocal, don’t discourage it. Rough & tumble play & play fighting is very natural; don’t shame or forbid it, but just be more mindful if your kids are cruel to animals or hurting people just for the sake of it as these are far stronger indicators that you need to intervene.
How to manage gunplay:
1. Avoid look-alikes
Psychologist Joanne Cummings says you’re better off handing your children a pink or orange water pistol rather than a toy that looks very literal. “It’s not as realistic, and they have to use their imagination.”
2. Know the warning signs
There’s a big difference between aggressive play and aggressive behaviour. When there’s an intent to harm—or when a child is unable to resolve conflict except through overpowering other people—that’s when to worry.
3. Stick around
Monitor how your children are playing. There will be mishaps when there is any kind of rambunctious play, but children learn from these interactions. Think of it like teaching them to use scissors – they need to learn how to play respectfully.
4. Set boundaries
Children shouldn’t be hurting each other during fake gun battles. If there’s persistent violence or aggression, it’s time to break up the game and explore the underlying cause.
5. Talk it out
Have frequent conversations with your child about how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way, and talk to them about what real guns actually do. It’s important that boys understand that gunplay is make-believe and that in real life, we don’t fight, but, rather, use our words to explain how we’re feeling.