Toddler Actions: Gun Play

In the video, 3-year old Sam plays with his gun that is able to “kill monsters.” His dad gave him the gun, telling him that is was a special monster-killing gun, so Sam plans to use it just for that. When asked what the monsters that he will kill look like, one can practically see his brain “gears” turning as he conjures up pictures about what the monsters will look like when he sees them and prepares to pull out his laser gun to kill them! I provide him with a few prompts as to what they will look like, and he decides that the monsters with look like “eye ball fish.”

Toddlers playing with guns can be a controversial topic amongst parents. Some parents take a hard-nosed, “no gun play” approach. I swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, having learned early in my parenting career that it seems as soon as I “forbid” something it made the object that much more desirable. Instead, I use the object to engage my children in a discussion about the potential dangers or negative outcomes of the object in question (e.g., toy sword, kitchen knife, etc.) and then place limits on or lay down rules about the object. But, I can vividly remember lively and heated discussions with my friends who had boys the same age as my now 16-year old son Michael about whether or not little boys should play with guns or not.

When I first encountered the issue, Michael was about Sam’s age now, 3-1/2. Michael always seemed to operate on rules we had laid down, such as guns are used to kill monsters and “bad guys,” so I never found his gun play to be of concern. The gun play didn’t seem to dominate his time, so I felt it was fine to let him explore it. When we went to friend’s house, however, that had the “no guns allowed” rule, I would warn Michael ahead of time about the “no aggressive play, no guns rule” at “so-and-so’s” house. Michael always did a great job following through, until the boys at the friend’s house started using “weapons” against him! The boys didn’t have toy guns or swords, but they used sticks from the yard as swords, carrot sticks as guns, and building blocks as bombs. It simply seemed like an unstoppable need for the boys to use guns, or other weapons, during play, whether there were rules in place or not.

I found an interesting article on understanding and raising boys regarding gun play on PBS Parents (http://www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys/aggression05.html). Here are some “snippets” from the article:

—Hardwired for Gun Play?

First, a basic question: Are little boys predisposed to gun play?

“All one needs to do is look around to see that a connection exists,” says Joshua Weiner, an Arlington, Virginia-based psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents. “This connection is likely—like most things—a combination of genetics and environment.”

In today’s society, it is difficult to shield a child from “expressions of violence,” whether they come from television shows, video games or even older siblings and friends, Weiner notes. “Boys are likely predisposed to respond.”

“Boys probably have some yet-unknown gene which contributes to this behavior,” he adds. “Think about men being the hunter/gatherer and needing to kill for food and to protect their family.”

Still, identifying the ancestral underpinnings of aggression in boys doesn’t make it any easier for parents.

—What Parents Can Do

1. Talk with your kids. Instead of talking at your son about guns (“Guns are dangerous!” “Don’t do that!”) talk with him. His understanding of guns is probably less sophisticated than you think. Ask open-ended questions to acknowledge the play and spur conversation: “Looks like you’re having fun. What are you doing?” And gently but consistently underscore the difference between real and toy guns by emphasizing how much fun it is to “pretend.”

2. Limit your child’s exposure to violence on TV or in video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids be exposed to no more than one to two hours of “quality [television] programming” per day.

3. Monitor, don’t necessarily prohibit, your child’s gun play. As long as playing with toy guns doesn’t dominate a child’s time, it’s okay to let him explore it, says Weiner—provided a parent or trusted adult is watching. “Many young kids (under age five) don’t even understand what shooting someone really means,” he says. “The shooting is more about power, fantasy and imagination—not killing and death.”

4. If you’re going to buy a toy gun, make sure it looks like a toy. Limiting guns to those that look nothing like real guns in terms of size, shape or color works. Of course, there should be rules regarding toy gun etiquette, such as “We don’t point at faces or at people who ‘aren’t playing.'”

5. Encourage “target practice.” Achieving the simple goal of hitting a target with a foam-ball gun can be extremely satisfying for an active little boy, and it helps develop hand-eye coordination to boot.

6. Teach proper gun safety. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth pointing out: if you choose to have real guns in your home, it’s imperative to help your children understand and respect their power.

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