Back in the day, no one batted an eye at children running around playing cops and robbers with toy pistols. But in today’s day and age, toy gunplay isn’t viewed so innocently; now we’re busy searching for answers to the multitude of recent school shootings and other tragedies involving gun violence in our nation. Today parents are more cautious than ever when it comes to allowing children to play with toy guns. A study published in Pediatrics found that of 830 parents surveyed, 67% believed it was never “ok for a child to play with toy guns” and 66% reported never allowing their children to play with toy guns. Despite this, research suggests there is no strong scientific evidence linking war-playing games in childhood with aggression in real life. In fact, parents’ punishment methods are much more likely to predict aggressive behavior in children. What’s more is that children will likely find a way to create toy guns if not provided with them. I’ve seen kids create pretend guns out of pretty much anything- Legos, tinker toys, Play-Doh, and their own fingers. So it may not be about prohibiting toy gunplay, but rather monitoring play and providing education about what type of play is okay and what isn’t.
As a clinical psychologist, I often utilize play therapy with young children. Young children express themselves through play; they do not yet possess the cognitive skills to verbalize their thoughts and emotions in an in-depth manner. Play allows children to act out their fears and dreams, work through conflict, take on the perspective of others, and helps them think symbolically and creatively. Play with toy guns is all about good versus evil, and in the end, most kids want to come out on top as the powerful hero. In my professional opinion, toy gunplay can facilitate cognitive and social development. Below are a few guidelines to help keep toy gunplay healthy versus harmful:
1. SAFETY FIRST: Federal law requires that toy guns are clearly marked with orange tips so that police officers know the toy gun is not real. Make sure your kiddos’ toy guns have orange tips and don’t appear too realistic (think bright colors). Explain these distinctions and their importance to your children so they are aware of the visible differences between toy guns and real guns.
2. ESTABLISH A FEW SIMPLE RULES FOR PLAY WITH TOY GUNS: Examples include no pointing or aiming the toy gun at someone’s face, no pointing the toy gun at someone unless they are playing with you, and listening/respecting others if they express they don’t want to play with toy guns.
3. KEEP WATCH: Monitor the level of violence your child is exposed to through television and video games. Also monitor your children’s play with toy guns. Pay close attention to the themes of play, the level of aggression towards others, and the end result of play scenarios. Model appropriate play with toy guns for your kids and provide them with shooting targets and structured games involving healthy competition.
4. EDUCATION IS KEY: Talk to your children about the purpose of guns and how they can be both helpful and harmful. Provide education about gun safety and the dangers of handling a real gun so your child has clear idea of what to do if the situation presents itself.
Ultimately, it’s your decision as a parent if you chose to allow your children to play with toy guns. We hope you find these tips helpful. Harmony At Home is happy to answer questions and entertain comments. Feel free to contact Dr. Luisa or comment below.