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Why I Let My Son Play With Toy Guns, Even Though I’m Anti-Gun

The following was originally posted on Dose and has been syndicated for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

Every day, my kid gets home from school, hangs up his backpack and goes to play outside. We’re lucky enough to live on 20 acres, with plenty of trails, tunnels and trees to explore.

He never heads outside without a few things: His fanny pack, which keeps his glucose monitor for his diabetes. A whistle, in case he gets lost. And a gun.

Not a real one — he’s 9. But a cap gun, or a Nerf gun or a stick that looks vaguely like a gun. The boy loves guns.

I don’t love guns. It’s hard to do so in a country in which they’re used to slaughter innocent people every day, especially children. For awhile, I was really worried. So I did some research and talked to parents from the past 3 generations to understand why violence appeals to children.

Parents have fought against toy guns for as long as they’ve been manufactured. In the 1930s, when gangster movies were the latest fad, angry mothers lit bonfires and incinerated imitation Tommy guns.

Interestingly enough, toy guns are no longer as popular as they once were. Industry consultant Richard Gottlieb notes they’re still decent sellers overseas, especially in China and Japan. “The lower the use of guns in a society, the more likely they are to be seen as okay as a toy.”

I don’t love guns. It’s hard to do so in a country in which they’re used to slaughter innocent people every day, especially children.

It’s easy to say, Well, that’s the way things have always been, and stop thinking about it. But there’s obviously something deeper that attracts children to weapons.

An article by Jay Mechling in the American Journal of Play digs deep into the long-lasting appeal of toy guns. He brings up a number of cultural factors that link guns to emerging masculinity, from the position of early-day hunters to modern-day characters in films and TV.

But it’s not the gun itself, obviously. It’s what it lets you do. It lets you pretend to shoot people.

call of duty

In child psychology, pretend war is called “dramatic play,” a chance for children to embody a life different from their own. In a society that lionizes and celebrates soldiers for their bravery and sacrifice, it’s an easy way for kids to play a character with status — no different than playing a doctor or a firefighter.

Mehling notes the importance of the “play frame,” the mental structure that allows kids to separate pretending to shoot somebody from the tragic, physical reality of it. He also suggests gun fantasy offers children the opportunity to “pretend to die” and explore their own mortality in a safe way.

Many educators argue that pretend gunplay makes it difficult for children to discern it from the real thing. But play fighting is, at its heart, a cooperative enterprise in which participants set rules to avoid injury.

If you’ve watched kids play cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers, you’ve probably seen them argue and negotiate through the fantasy. Imaginary bullets missed their target, or the big tree is base now when it wasn’t before. Those negotiations are delicate — if any kid pushes it too far, the game will stop being fun for everyone.

Encouraging that kind of cooperation — even if the results aren’t peaceful — can be valuable to their development. It teaches situational awareness and, surprisingly, empathy.

One interesting perspective on play violence comes from the book The Art Of Roughhousing by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. and Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D. In it, the authors argue that physical, confrontational play can “bring you and your children closer together; improve their cognitive and emotional intelligence; and promote physical health, strength, and flexibility.”

The duo also cite studies that claim aggressive play teaches emotional resiliency, as it forces kids to get agitated and then calm down quickly to continue the game.

The science community certainly isn’t united on this. A 1984 study at Brandeis University found correlations between toy gun play and real aggression in boys. However, it also found correlations between the amount of physical discipline used by their parents and aggression in both boys and girls.

But it’s not the gun itself, obviously. It’s what it lets you do. It lets you pretend to shoot people.

In fact, war play with other kids is probably significantly better for children than what’s replaced it: Video games.

Violent video games take out the negotiation of fantasy play because there’s not a “real person” on the other end of your rifle. Your targets are digital images without feelings or opinions. When you shoot them, they just go away. There’s no empathy or cooperation, no consequences to friendships.

The behavioral science around violence and games is just as inconclusive as it is around toy guns, of course. It’s impossible to develop a direct metric between play and a person’s eventual development, because most kids engage in violent play and comparatively few ever commit a violent crime.

To really understand the appeal, you need to look closer at how children interact with their environment.

Kids have a lot of things in this world. But what they don’t have is power. Playing war lets them pretend to have a direct, inarguable form of power on the world around them.

So Henry goes out with his cap gun and I hear the echo of its hammer clicking in the distance, his yawps of “Thought you could sneak up on me, did ya?” as he pivots to ding an imaginary assailant. And I’m okay with it.

It still makes me a little sad, especially when news of another mass shooting plays on the radio during breakfast. But if pretending to blast ninjas or Nazis or Sith lords gives him a little more strength to navigate this world, I’ll survive. Like millions of other kids, I know one day the reality of the world around him will sink in and he’ll set aside his guns for something better.

K. Thor Jensen is the only real dad on Twitter. Check out his website www.shortandhappy.com.