A few of my friends have said they won’t allow their children to play with toy guns of any kind. My 5-year-old son likes to play with guns, and it results in creative and imaginative play for him and his friends. Is it okay?
This is a question that comes up every time I speak to parents of young boys. Given our heightened awareness of gun violence, I think that all parents want to get this one right. This was an issue my husband and I struggled with while raising our own son.
There is much research that points to the old adage boys will be boys, and that when left to their own devices, they will find a way to play in an aggressive way. Many parents report that while they have never given their sons (and it almost always seems to be the boys) toy guns, they find them making guns from sticks, cardboard, LEGOs, or whatever materials are available to them. The question we grapple with is, does the violence in our culture rub off on even young boys and shape their behavior, or is there something innate in the male nature that makes these toys irresistible? I believe the answer to these questions is yes. Both have an impact in driving behavior.
I could write enough to fill this entire magazine trying to explain the male brain and how it is hardwired, but to keep it simple, there does seem to be a difference between the male and female brain when it comes to aggressive behavior. In addition, many boys have a body that is well-suited to move and to defend. Men and boys are drawn to action such as that which takes place on the sports field. It is one of the ways in which they release tension. Many might call this good clean fun, but if aggression is not held in check, it can cross the line into violence. Young boys don’t always have the impulse control or life experience to know where that line is.
My own belief is that to deny this drive for action and aggressive behavior in your son is to say to him “part of who you are is unacceptable to me.” This was not a message I wanted to send my son. Here is how we handled this dilemma.
While we did not allow our son to have realistic-looking metal guns, we did allow him to play with water pistols and other guns that were clearly and unmistakably toys. We also set some ground rules for how he could play with these toys. He knew that everyone involved in the play had to be okay with it, and that if things got out of control, meaning someone was in danger of getting hurt or was uncomfortable with the style of plan, then the play was over, and we would put the guns away for a period of time. I must admit that this never happened, and that he handled our expectations well.
It is important to set kids up for success by stating boundaries before they find themselves in these situations. While I was never truly comfortable with this kind of play (I am, after all, a long-practicing yogi!), it seemed to be short-lived, as my son went on to other interests. I believe that our commonsense approach kept this play to a minimum as there was no taboo to rebel against. This strategy worked well for us. It might be worth a try.
For parenting books on this subject, I recommend It’s a Boy: Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 by Michael Thompson, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry by Katrina Kennison. The second title is a wonderful memoir by a yoga teacher raising two young boys who is struggling to come to terms with the kind of aggressive play she observes in her sons.