My 4-year-old can turn almost anything into an imaginary gun. A piece of wooden toy railroad track? Sure, it’ll take care of the bad guys. Although my son isn’t always acting out battle scenarios, he does it enough to make me wonder: Is this kind of play normal? Given this country’s devastating record of gun violence, should I be stopping him? Does allowing gun play somehow increase the risk that he will one day become a victim or an instigator of gun violence?
Firearms were the second leading cause of death in 2014 for American children between the ages of 1 and 19. On average, eight kids were shot every day. Most children who are killed by firearms die in their homes, having been shot by their parents’ guns. Worse, research suggests that no matter how adamantly parents talk to their kids about staying away from any real guns, most will jump at a chance to play with them anyway. Regardless of where we live or how safe we feel, parents need to take steps to protect their kids from gun violence. But the good news is that it is perfectly normal for kids to pretend to play with guns from time to time. Aggressive play is not just part of growing up—research suggests that it can even help kids self-regulate better in real life.
Let’s start with real guns, which are the true threat to your child’s safety. If you keep a gun in your home, store it in a locked place, unloaded, with the ammunition stored in a separate location. That’s because more than three-quarters of kids—even young ones under the age of 10—know where parents keep their guns, even when parents don’t think they do. If you’re thinking, But the whole point of having a gun is to keep it loaded and easily accessible in the event of a home invasion, consider that for every one time a gun in the home is successfully used for self-defense, guns in the home will have caused four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides. In other words, a gun kept unlocked and loaded for self-defense is much, much more likely to hurt family members than protect them. (For more on how guns kept in the home threaten children, read Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes 2014 Slate piece.)
Even if you don’t own a gun, you still need to take steps to protect your kids while they’re in other people’s homes. Certainly, talking to them about guns—how dangerous they are, why they should never be played with—is not a bad idea, but it’s simply not enough. Marjorie Sanfilippo, a psychologist at Eckerd College in Florida, has conducted a series of terrifying experiments illustrating that boys and girls simply don’t listen when you warn them about guns. In her first study, published in 1996, she let pairs of 4- to 6-year-old children play in a room with various toys including real and toy guns. Then she and a local police officer spent 30 minutes educating one of the children in each pair about the dangers of guns—among other things, that they are never to be touched without a parent’s permission and that kids should always find an adult if they come across one. A week later, she put the pair of children back together in the same room again to play. “What we found is that the children who had the lessons played with the guns just as much as the children who didn’t—and they didn’t leave the area to get an adult, and they didn’t stop the friend from playing with it. It was as if they’d gotten no lessons whatsoever,” she recalls. In a subsequent experiment, she enrolled one group of preschool children in a weeklong firearm-education session while another group of kids had no training. Again, the intervention had no effect on the children’s likelihood of playing with guns. “There’s no amount of teaching that can overcome that natural curiosity about guns,” she concludes.
So if you don’t want your kids to play with guns, you have to make sure they don’t find any. And this means that when your child goes into another person’s home, you need to ask whether any guns they have are stored safely. If the thought of posing this question makes you uneasy—maybe you worry about offending the other person—consider that “people who own guns are often more comfortable having these conversations than people who don’t,” says Jennie Lintz, director of public health and safety at the nonprofit Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. If you still feel weird, try it this way: “Call the parent and say, ‘My son is fascinated with guns—he’s going through a phase—so I just want to make sure that you don’t have any real guns accessible.’ Because then you’re saying, ‘I want to protect your child, too,’ ” Sanfilippo says. If guns aren’t stored in a way that makes you comfortable, invite the child over to your home instead.
Let’s move on to how kids play. Although both boys and girls display aggression in their play, the fact is that boys do it much more, particularly when they’re playing with other boys. (The causes for these differences are debated.) Most of the time, this kind of play is normal and may even be useful. In a 2013 study, researchers observed how preschoolers played by themselves with various objects and then watched these same children in their classrooms. They found that the more oral aggression the kids displayed—for example, pretending that stuffed animals bit or ate each other—the less aggressive their behavior was in the classroom. The researchers speculate that when kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions. Another recent paper penned by academic psychologists went so far as to argue that preventing kids from play fighting could interfere with their social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and communicative development. Although we can’t be certain that this relationship is causal—it’s possible that kids who are more socially mature simply tend to play more aggressively—one thing is clear: “Aggressive behavior in pretend play is different than actual aggressive behavior in real life,” says co-author and Case Western Reserve University child psychologist Sandra Russ.
Certainly, though, not all aggressive play is normal or healthy. If your child actually hurts other kids when he plays, that might be a sign of an impulse-control problem and may be worth discussing with a pediatrician. It also matters whether your child uses his imagination. If he simply takes one toy and uses it to bash another toy for five minutes straight, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of narrative, then that could be a cause for concern, too.
Indeed, the more creative a child’s pretend play is, the better—so it’s not necessarily good for your child to play out the same scripted scene from The Lego Movie over and over again. Instead, encourage her to improvise. Ask her questions and prompt her to create new stories. “Imitation is not really play, and when it’s not really play, children are not really working on the things they need to work on,” says Diane Levin, an early education specialist at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of The War Play Dilemma. Levin adds that if there are aspects of your child’s play that make you uncomfortable—maybe your kid is always talking about “killing” bad guys and that makes you cringe—try to engage and perhaps even redirect your child, although it may not always work. “Say, ‘It sounds like [the bad guy] did something really bad—what did he do?’ Or ‘Is there anything else you can do besides killing?’ Or ‘Is there anything we can do to help the bad guy become good?’ Take the lead from your child, but if he dismisses you, then accept it.”
As for gun play specifically: “Kids are going to make guns out of sticks and clay and that’s fine—that’s pretend,” Russ says. It’s best not to stop them, because doing so might shame them. Plus, Sanfilippo says, “if you make it too big of a deal about it, they’re going to want to do it more, and they’re going to do it behind your back.”
And while most experts say that toy and squirt guns are fine, Russ points out that for the small subset of children who have difficulty separating play from reality, or who have impulse-control problems, realistic-looking toy and squirt guns may not be such a good idea.
So pretend gun play is generally A-OK and might even make kids less violent—hooray, one less gun-related thing to worry about. And in fact, it might be something to celebrate for another reason. When your kid is fighting “bad guys,” he’s probably pretending to be a good guy, even a superhero, and that’s empowering and heroic. “It’s the way boys deal with being in a group and deal with the anxiety of being little boys,” says child psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. “They want to be strong and big, and they want to do it with a stick or a sword.” Or, obviously, a gun.
In addition to the sources mentioned, The Kids would like to thank Alex Dubroff.