On Why I let my Son Play with Toy Guns

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I understand that this is an extremely touchy subject, and people usually take the extreme side for or against guns. I believe strongly that there is a responsible middle ground, and I ask that whatever your feelings are about this topic, that you express them kindly, without attacking anyone else. It’s okay if you disagree with me, and I certainly respect families who choose not to allow toy guns in their homes.

As a new parent, and maybe even before my son was born, I resolved to never let him play with toy guns. I kept that promise to myself, too! Well, for the first four years of his life anyway.  I couldn’t understand why any parent would allow their kids to play with toy guns!  I was appalled even!  I was wrong to think that way. I normally consider myself to be a fairly open-minded and tolerant parent, but sometimes things like this smack me upside the head and knock me down a peg or two. I have *so* much to learn. SO MUCH! There are many times when I think I know what’s up, but I don’t. I was a victim of this particular popular idea in the United States: Toy guns turn kids into murderers.

What I didn’t realize before was how predispositioned little boys are to play with guns. They’re just hardwired that way. All one has to do is observe the little guys around them to see that. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment, and I’m convinced boys are programmed to have a need to provide and protect. It’s in their genes. Even with this knowledge, it’s hard to simply accept that they’re that way. It’s impossible to look at all the school shootings, all the murders, and all the accidental deaths caused by children finding improperly stored handguns, and not wonder if toy guns in childhood are at least partially to blame. Violence is EVERYWHERE. Kids are bombarded with it from every source: school, neighbors, television, video games, siblings, and even music. Guarding your child’s heart and mind from as many of these is probably your best bet in helping to not normalize that type of violence. It’s the reason I homeschool, the reason I don’t allow video games without VERY close supervision, and only an hour a week. It’s the reason we don’t listen to the radio, or watch any TV shows that I haven’t seen first. It’s the reason I say no to playdates with families we don’t have a close relationship with, and it’s the reason I choose to be involved with every aspect of my five year old’s life. Call it hovering, call it helicopter parenting, call it whatever you’d like, I am charged with keeping my son’s heart and mind as pure and gentle as I possibly can, and I take that call seriously.

Of course, as many parents know, if a toy gun is not as their disposal, kids will turn ANYTHING and EVERYTHING into a gun. Any old stick will be picked up and pointed at a tree, given a “BANG BANG” sound effect, and the tree will be declared dead. Legos will be fashioned into a rifle, pistols will be cut out of construction paper, and every item that looks remotely like a gun will be used as such. My son was not immune to this phenomenon. I tried to shelter him from the whole gun thing, but we live in an area where hunting is prevalent, and guns are pretty commonplace. I HATED that about this place when we moved here a few years ago. I still don’t particularly like it, but I think I understand it more. People here still hunt for food. Without the deer they get every year, some of their freezers would be empty, and their families would go hungry. Guns are sometimes still used for violence here, as they are everywhere, but it’s rare. Kids are taught from a very early age how to handle a gun safely, and responsibly. There isn’t as much curiosity surrounding them, because they know what they are, and how they work. That makes total sense to me, as the more I tried to steer my son away from guns, the more he became obsessed with them.

Four year old Rowan, and the holster that started it all.

Four year old Rowan, and the holster that started it all.

It all started with a holster. My mom found an old holster at an antique shop, and bought it for my then four year old son. She knew my anti-weapon stance, but still pushed me to let him have one. While I wish she had respected my desire to keep guns out of my home, I understand now where she was coming from. She and my dad were both children of the 1950’s, where shows like “The Lone Ranger” and toy soldiers, and cowboy costumes all featured gun-toting heros, and gun violence outside of war was at a minimum.   Parents taught their kids respect and self-control, and it wasn’t an issue.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s that panic over toy guns arose with the mass school shootings. People began to fear that toy guns were desensitizing kids, and that shooting people was OK. I too, believed that myth. Yet, research has proven that most little boys(I know little girls like to play with guns too, but for the sake of this post, and due to the fact that I only have a boy, I’ll stick to what I’ve researched: boys and guns.) who play with guns as children do NOT grow up to commit violent crimes.

My theory is this: Little boys do not feel powerful, because they are, well, little. With a toy gun they feel heroic and powerful. It’s about winning and losing, fighting the monsters, the good guy vs. the bad guy, and rescuing the victim. Sometimes there is aggression, yes, and with close supervision, this can and should be stopped. When my son plays with guys, we have a rule: No shooting at real people or real animals, even if it’s a gun that doesn’t actually have a projectile (unless it’s a Nerf war, and everyone around is a willing participant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen over-aggression during our Nerf battles. He’s usually in a giggle-fit on the floor, laughing too hard to show any aggression). He can shoot at trees, imaginary bad guys, or up in the air. Every couple of days we have a discussion that goes something like this:

Mom: When is the ONLY time you can shoot a real person with a real gun?
Rowan: When they are trying to hurt someone else.
Mom: Right. Do you ever play with a real gun?
Rowan: No. If I ever find a real gun, don’t touch it, and tell someone it’s there.
Mom: Very good. Are real guns toys?
Rowan: Nope. They can hurt people if you play with them.
Mom: Right. Very good.

Rowan's Arsenal

Rowan’s Arsenal

When young boys play with toy guns, I think it’s more about imagination and fantasy, not necessarily about death and killing. I think that if playing with guns is all little boys want to do, then taking away the guns, and talking about why all they want to do is play with guns, would be a good idea. As with most things, moderation is the key. If I notice my son getting too intense in his gun play, I encourage target practice, instead of the imaginative play. If I can refocus his mind, he calms down, and enjoys trying to knock over some stacked paper cups, or hitting a bullseye. I try to steer him away from realistic looking assault weapons, and stick to the Nerf guns, or laser-type guns. I’ve found that he prefers those anyway, because of the cool sound effects, and he tends to lean more towards imaginative play, such as hunting monsters or aliens, and not trying to shoot a bad guy. He does have one rifle-type gun, but I’ve never seen him use it for any play other than hunting animals for food.

I truly believe that if he learns now that guns are not for hurting or killing people, that he will have a much healthier view of guns as an adult. He’s beginning to grasp that guns are very powerful things, and that he needs to respect them, because they could hurt him, or someone else. It’s a wonderful way to teach self-control, and that your behavior and actions have consequences.

Toy guns are not the problem. Being exposed to violence on TV, in video games, in music, in the community, and even in the home is the issue. If little boys grow up seeing people being killed by guns, of course they’re going to think it’s OK to do that! My uncles were both in Vietnam, and one of my uncles just retired from a long career in the police force. Both of them have used guns, and both of them have taught my son how to treat every weapon as if it were loaded, even toys! They’ve showed him how to hold a gun so it doesn’t accidentally shoot him, or someone else. They’ve explained how weapons should be used to defend, not aggressively hurt someone else in anger. My son is growing up with a respect and knowledge of weapons, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think he’ll grow up to be a mass murderer, because I’m helping him remove aggression, anger, and violence from weapon use. He will see a gun as a tool to hunt and provide. He will see a gun as way to defend himself and his family.

We don’t own any real guns, and I hope we never live in a place where we need to. I feel that no matter how fiercely I shelter my son, he will be exposed to weapons at some point in his life. If I don’t educate him, he will be thrust into a situation that he won’t know how to handle, with potentially deadly results. Of course I’d rather have my son read a book, or climb a tree than play with guns, but shaming young children for the imaginary play that they are naturally drawn to isn’t going to fix the country’s gun problem. Their play is valuable. It goes beyond mere gun play, into long, drawn out scenarios that teach them how to read social cues, self-control, nobility, helps them figure out their place in a group, and how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Children don’t see guns through the same lense as adults do. To children gun play is just that-play. Boys are boisterous players, they need the time and the space to explore their boundaries. Of course they will cross the line sometimes, but if the adult in charge closely monitors that play, it’s an amazing teachable moment. Acknowledging how and what boys want to play helps engage them, and makes them receptive to your teaching. In the safety of your own home, with your rules, little boys can explore the world of weapons. With a lot of parents I’ve talked to, and in many articles I’ve read, most little guys who are given the opportunity to freely explore their interests in guns, grow out of them by their pre-teen years. Those who didn’t grow out of them, developed a more mature hobby, such as hunting or target shooting. None of them grew up to kill anyone, or handled a gun unsafely. Studies show that boys who are not permitted to act out their imaginative play with toy guns, or shown how to handle a real one were much more likely to show a curiosity for playing with guns found at a friend’s house, to be involved with an accidental shooting, or to commit a crime using a gun.

Based on my research, and my own experiences, the odds are in favor of allowing kids to play with toy guns. That is why I will continue to allow my son to use them, under my careful watch. I won’t promote gun play, or even encourage it, but I won’t ban it. I certainly won’t ignore it.  We will play together, and openly discuss the subject of guns.  It’s a natural phase for children to go through, and if my son wants to play a game where he needs a gun to protect his cousin from the monster trying to eat them, I will smile, remind him not to point the gun at real people, and feel proud that my little boy is growing up to be a hero.

2 thoughts on “On Why I let my Son Play with Toy Guns

  1. Bravo. Absolutely brilliant, Tiffany. Perhaps the most insightful, probative, and well thought out analysis I’ve ever read on the topic, and I’ve read a LOT. If we’re ever going to bring this highly charged, highly controversial topic of guns and gun control through to a solution, it will be through the very type of sensitive dialogue and analytical discourse that you’ve initiated here. Again, well done.

  2. I have raised two sons who went to public schools, owned and participated in violent video games including every “one person shooter” game ever made, saw and handled guns as a youngster, and somehow have never shot or killed or threatened anyone for any reason or cause using a handgun or rifle. They had plenty of play guns, and as they matured, real guns at their disposal and never once, despite the evil influences of public schooling and lack of religious indoctrination, felt the need or inclination to use guns to kill and/or maim.

    My point is that kids who end up using guns to kill or maim are deficient in empathy for others, in understanding how their actions affect others, in the concepts of right and wrong. Sociopaths are not created by public schools or lack of religion, they are created by parents who feed into the narcissistic images of children who feel that nothing they do is wrong and nothing they do is accountable to others. Those parents could be those that hover or those that ignore. Either way, the message is toxic.

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