Should we let our children play with guns?

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.

7 Responses to Should we let our children play with guns?

  1. fab40foibles says:

    Kids have always played with guns etc. As children we’ve all tied some poor kid to a tree and had him rescued by the cowboys as the indians fired twig arrows from a bow made with string and a stick.

    When I started out years ago as an au pair, the parents were against all this kind of toy, and as you mentioned, the little boy would make a gun out of lego.

    Surely such inbuilt play must be normal, and our job as adults is to glide the child gently towards uderstanding the consequences of real life violence.

  2. Before I became the mother of a son, I think I would also have been pretty opposed to allowing gun play in our home. My husband came up with a great idea that we plan to implement: our son will be allowed to play with guns that actually shoot something (water pistols, foam darts, etc.) This way, he will learn what guns actually do. The guns he plays with are clearly toys, not arms for killing.

    For many parents, the concern with gun play is just what you talked about: young children don’t understand what guns are capable of doing. The concern is that if guns are normalized through play, it becomes hard to teach or show what a gun really is. It’s not symbolic play because they don’t know what the gun symbolizes. A toy that shoots water or foam darts will show a child that shooting a gun has a clear effect when it hits something (albeit less dramatic than a real bullet). As the child ages, he may move on to a beebee gun which further illustrates the gun’s power. Then it becomes easier to teach what might happen with a real gun because the kid has first-hand, life experience to truly understand the potential harm of a firearms.

    I do agree with you that aggressive play is natural and important for normal child development. Guns, however, have NOT always been around. In fact, they are a relatively new arrival in human history and our exposure to them is largely cultural. Play fighting in young animals is play that imitates actions they have seen or actions they will need to use for survival. Guns do not fit this category for humans. At two, my son still doesn’t have any concept of guns because he’s never been exposed to them. Eventually, he will be, although most likely from other kids, not from seeing what guns really do. We will certainly make sure he learns that guns are for shooting things, not just making silly sounds.

    Great post on a hot topic!

    • Jo says:

      Some interesting comments. I think your suggestion that guns might become normalised through play probably strikes at the heart of many parents’ objections. However, I don’t think there’s any real evidence to support this (I stand to be corrected!). In fact, after a quick search and I find that psychologist Michael Thompson has spoken about this recently.

      I think it would be easy enough for a child to learn what guns really do when they reach the right age, as with many things they learn and become conscious of as they develop, whatever type of toy gun they had or had not been allowed to play with.

      It’s true of course that guns have not always been around, but I think they have just been adopted by children as a prop to add into their (quite natural) aggressive play, along with swords, lightsabers etc.

  3. we do we even have guns in the first place

  4. Melanie says:

    This was a very helpful article. Living in the west we have lots of Cowboys who want to hunt everything from gophers to indians. I have always tried to discourage the play using guns, but after reading this article I think I will change a few things and allow play with pretend guns as long as we have some lessons on gun safety and how and why we use guns. This will open up some summer fun with water pistols and super soakers. Thanks for the insite.

    • Jo says:

      Thanks. Glad you found it helpful. And don’t just take my word for it – there’s plenty more been written on the subject.

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