My husband and I have tried to keep toy guns and violent play out of our home. We monitor our 4 year old son’s exposure to TV and videos. He has recently begun to talk about bad guys and turning any toy or material into a gun or weapon. Please help us, we don’t know how to handle this behavior.
We understand your anxiety surrounding this issue, many parents have the same concerns. We realize with all the violence in the news today that parents and caregivers have good reason to be concerned for their children.
First keep in mind that boys especially have a natural predisposition to gun play. Society has a preset notion that “boys will be boys.” This is true to a point, there are differences between boys and girls, and it is worthwhile to appreciate those differences and allow for them. This is most likely a combination of genetics and environment, differences stem just as much from nature as nurture. How boys and girls play are in part due to chemical, hormonal, and functional differences in the brain. This isn’t to say that all boys play one way and all girls play another way.
With this said, let’s take a look at why children need to engage in forceful play.
• To embrace what they’ve experienced or heard
• To understand what confuses them
• To practice skills of all kinds
• To try out roles (which aids perspective and compassion for others)
• It’s enjoyable and engaging, as long as it’s child-led and kept safe
• Its accessibility and flexibility can fit in all types of learning styles
• It allows for imaginative fantasy play that gives power and control to children
Parents often ask, “Doesn’t War Play Encourage Violence?” Some people think that children’s war play serves only to promote wars, because it prepares children to be violent. Researchers have found just the opposite to be true. Healthy rough and tumble, free play leads to greater skills and experience in handling adversity without aggression in teens and adults. On the other hand it has been found that banning rough/gun play can lead to juvenile and adult violence. Play may actually prevent violence.
So what should you do? The curiosity about guns and violence does not mean that your child will grow into a violent adolescent. The first step is to talk openly with your child! Our initial instinct is usually to stop any sign of this play and say, “Stop. No guns.” because it scares us as adults. Children, however, often have such a need to resolve their mixed up feelings about violence, that they will get sneaky if it is not allowed. As for us adults seeing pretend gun play can create great havoc within ourselves. If children sense our discomfort and ask us about it, we could explain generally why this is so. We need to try to be sensitive to the level of their age and understanding. You could start with guns hurt people and that scares me. Keep in mind that children are acting out scenarios to learn more about them.
Ask open-ended questions such as, “What can you tell me about the game you’re playing?” Draw attention to the pretend aspect of his/her play. If he tells you that he’s shooting bad guys for example, highlight that he is pretending by saying, “Oh you are pretending there are ‘bad guys?’”. You might even probe and ask what it means to be a “bad guy.” By asking questions such as; what is the difference between “the good guys” and “the bad guys”, what do good/bad guys do, who are the good/bad guys? In doing this you can find out what they know and comprehend, giving you a better understanding of their play and how to direct it.
Monitor gun play. Allow your child time to play and imagine. Often gun play is more about using imaginative roles and power than it is about being violent. Children usually don’t know the ramifications of actual gun violence. Making the subject taboo only lends to the power it has and the intrigue of guns. Lead the conversation into how to keep their gun play safe. As the adults we need to set up safe environments, provide appropriate materials, set limits, and then monitor play.
Encourage the use of targets. Rather than pointing weapons at people, encourage your child to aim at an inanimate object. Allow your child to choose his own target. Even better, get your child invested in the creation of their own target. This will lend to the creative rather than aspect of play rather than what might be viewed as more destructive.
In conclusion through play, children learn how to get along in the real world in a positive way. With deliberate discussions, parents can help their children understand what a hero is and what powers they have. “The first steps in creating the heroes of tomorrow are to help preschoolers today believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference. They can begin this process in play.” (From Superhero to Real-Life Hero: Encouraging Healthy Play By Shelley Butler and Deb Kratz)
Gun and Superhero Play Resource List - NAEYC
www.naeyc.org/files/tyc/file/Superhero and Gun Play Resources.pdf
Boys and Guns: What's a Parent to Do?
By Bethany Hardy