From the moment my son could grasp, he held a stick in his hand. As he grew, the stick became integral to his play. It took on the life of a sword, a knife, a light saber, a spear. I thought of these as healthy ways for him to express childhood curiosity towards power and and aggression. But then, the stick became a gun. The first time he tried to “shoot his stick,” we were at the park with other children. I heard, or at least imagined, the other mothers gasp.
Even more importantly than a gasp, I knew that how I reacted to his aggressive play would be key to his development. Banning his experiments with war, fighting, and aggressive behavior could backfire. I wanted to work with, rather than against, any violent boyhood fantasies my son was having.
As his drawings and fantasy play began to revolve more and more around guns, my reaction turned to panic. When he pulled a gun on another child and said, “bang, bang,” I was filled with horrible visions of Columbine and other school tragedies Any form of violence made me uncomfortable. What I wanted to do was tell my son “No” and forbid any gun play – EVER!
And I had questions: Had I done something wrong in my parenting? Had he seen violent media images without my knowledge? Was he angry?
My first step was trying to understand what was going on.
What Does it Really Mean?
Parents and educators are understandably freaked. Here’s why:
- Violence in games and media is more explicit than in the past. Even if you personally limit your child, they are surrounded by these images.
- The legality of guns sends the message that society sanctions their use.
- Children killing others is in the news.
No wonder parents have trouble viewing gun play as part of natural development.
Does pretend violence perpetuate real violence?
Michael Thompson, a psychologist who co-wrote “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” rejects the characterization of boys’ play as violent. “There is no such thing as violent play,” Thompson says. “Violence and aggression are intended to hurt somebody. Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”
Thompson talks about two contrasting phenomenons occurring at once. He talks about the increase in media’s explicit violence at the same time that culture displays less tolerance for little boys’ fantasies, which are actually much less violent than what is in the media.
“Many parents and teachers have a belief — call it an urban myth — that if boys play this way it will desensitize them to violence and they will grow up to be more violent. But it is a misunderstanding of what makes adults violent,” Thompson said
Through sophisticated play (including games like cops and robbers), children learn to delay gratification, prioritize, consider the perspectives of others, represent things symbolically, and control impulses, Leong and Bodrova wrote in the magazine Early Childhood Today in 2005.
According to Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and the founder and director of the National Institutes of Play, “Play can act as a powerful deterrent, even an antidote to prevent violence. Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization.”
You Can’t Just “Make it Go Away”
Jane Katch, author of, “Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play,” says, “When you try to ignore [this behavior], it doesn’t go away. And when you try to oppress it, it comes out in sneaky ways.”
My son attended a Waldorf school where he was encouraged to draw abstract colors and then pictures with houses, flowers, a tree, a swing, and a child. He sought out the black crayon and drew guns. This was highly discouraged. At home, he cut the couch with a kitchen knife. I think this was suppressed natural aggression not finding an outlet. You can call it aggressive behavior, pugnacity, resistance, spirit – or as one teacher said, repression! I think he felt repressed and he showed it.
Another Culture’s Context
In Japan, war games are part of children’s play. In fact, water play and other forms of shooting at one another are encouraged. Their relaxed attitude most likely has a lot to do with the fact that almost no one owns firearms and there are hardly any deaths by guns.
By acting out their fantasies, the Japanese children develop self-regulation toward aggressive play, which is seen there as a normal stage of childhood, rather than asking children to hide their urges.. Here in the states, children, especially boys, are made to feel ashamed of their interest in guns. It must be confusing for kids. We don’t ban guns that kill thousands and we have few limits on violence in movies aimed at kids, yet we want to ban our child’s play and fascination with guns.
What To Do?
Observe your child’s play.
Katch chronicled young children playing a game they called Suicide—which turned out to be more about spontaneous combustion than real thoughts of killing themselves or each other. Observe and see if you can discern what is at the heart of your child’s play.
Is your child learning?
Experts at the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood encourage parents not to suppress children’s aggression in play. “Children turn to play so that they can learn what they need to learn about aggression. We should become concerned about children’s relationship to aggression only if they appear to be overly pre-occupied with aggression in their thoughts or actions outside the sphere of play.”
Decide what’s appropriate for your family.
My son made many guns out of wood, metal, bread, PopTarts, pizza, pipe cleaners, etc. For his 7th birthday, he asked for something more substantial than little plastic water pistols. Something like a nerf gun, bb gun,or airsoft gun. He was trying to find what we would say yes to. Instead of bringing home more realistic guns, my husband decided to take him to a firing range to observe. It was exciting for him to be in that environment. I think it was also a bit frightening with all the loud noise. He talked a lot about his experience. (He never asked to go back.)
We did get him nerf guns and eventually, an air soft gun when he was 11 (used only with adult supervision.) Over time, his interest has waned. His drawn characters, once lying in bloody pools, stopped shooting and killing one another. Now, at 12, he’s interested in Minecraft, Lego’s, parkour, and soccer. He draws 3D buildings and (very funny) comic strips.
Encourage “target practice.”
Set up a pyramid of objects, a drawn bull’e eye, or some other appropriate target. This can be very satisfying for active boys and helps develop hand-eye coordination to boot.
Don’t point at faces or at people who ‘aren’t playing.’ Or don’t point at people at all – only targets.
Help your child be empathetic.
When my son pulled his “gun” on others, I didn’t want other children to feel afraid. Teaching him to read other children’s reactions – body pulling in, a look of fear, running away – was important. I was present as much as possible so I could observe another child’s reaction and help my son know when it didn’t feel like “play” to someone else.
If you’re getting a young child a toy gun, make sure it really looks like a toy.
There are foam poppers, pop guns, and water pistols. The more colorful, the better.
Provide another outlet.
As children work on impulse control and try to limit aggressive play when asked, it is helpful to have other outlets. Help children find ways to demonstrate courage, power and high levels of activity. Incorporate the “bad guys” into play. “The bad guys serve a purpose for children,” says Mary Ellin Logue, of the University of Maine. She conducts research on how different educational environments support or hinder children’s success. She suggests having your child write a letter to a bad guy. This gives them a way to externalize that part of themselves that they are trying to conquer.
Other parents are looking for ideas. Please share your difficulties and triumphs here.