Should we let our children play with guns?

February 22, 2012

Every parent of boys knows it.  They want to play with guns.  You just can’t stop them.  They’ll make guns out of sticks,  lego, bananas, anything really.  Distasteful to adults, do we try to stop it, forbid it, or just go with it?

Before I had a child I would probably have said, forbid it.  Now, I’m not so sure.  After all, they’re just playing.  What’s distasteful to adults is just a bit of harmless fun to a child.  It’s distasteful to us, because we understand what real guns are for, and what death is.  A young child doesn’t.  So my issues with attempting to prevent this type of play are:

1. We are attempting to force our adult perceptions on a child.  Just because we don’t like guns, doesn’t seem to me a good reason to attempt to stop what is clearly quite normal behaviour.  Boys have been playing with guns for centuries.  As long as no-one’s getting hurt, what’s the problem?  I think it’s a bit of a leap to assume that allowing them to play with guns is going to lead to them becoming involved in gun crime later in life.

2. I believe making something forbidden can increase its value in the eyes of a child. Whilst I don’t necessarily want to try to discourage my child from playing with guns, neither do I want to encourage it, and trying to forbid it could well back fire (no pun intended).

3. Children’s play is telling us something.  They express themselves through play, work out issues they have.  Trying to suppress a child’s instincts never works.

Having said all this, I have not yet succumbed to buying a toy gun for my child, but he can imagine all he likes with sticks etc.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, writes “Pretend guns (the kind you make with your finger or a cardboard tube or a stick) allow children to create games and rules and play out the themes important to them…….On the other hand, toy guns, especially realistic ones, tend to restrict children into playing in very limited ways.”

Of course, guns are not the only type of aggressive play that boys, and girls too, often like to engage in. Wrestling and play fighting is also common, and another area parents often seem uncomfortable with, either because they don’t recognise it as play, don’t like the idea of fighting being allowed – another example of our adult perceptions being applied, or they’re worried someone will get hurt.  I actually really enjoy watching this type of play as children seem to enjoy it so much, and it seems so natural.  It always makes me think of nature programmes on TV showing tiger or bear cubs play fighting.  OK, sometimes someone might end up taking a bit of a bump, but I’ve never seen anyone get seriously hurt.

So are we being over protective?  I think if we watch carefully enough we can learn to quickly distinguish between real and play fighting, and to know when an adult needs to step in if things are getting out of hand.  Too often I think we step in unnecessarily.

Cohen writes of this type of play “They aren’t just practising aggression, they are practising restraint and control as well.”  I think children would really be missing out on some important developmental needs if they were forbidden this type of play. If we’re really worried about it we can always join in!

Cohen goes on to write “I don’t believe you can or should ban all aggressive play. Children need to come to terms with aggression – their own and others’ – and if we don’t let them do it through play, they will do it in real life…..Good creative play….does not make children violent, no matter what kinds of aggressive games they are playing.”

This was first published as a guest post on Free Your Parenting.