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In a powerful new essay, author Alden Jones describes her seven-year-old son’s seemingly innate obsession with toy weapons. “It’s a known fact among parents of boys,” she writes, “reaffirmed at every playground discussion, that boys will turn anything into a gun no matter how you parent. It goes beyond nurture. Like many boys his age, Gray can make anything remotely gun-shaped—a clothes hanger, Legos, a vacuum-cleaner attachment—into a firearm. There is nothing unusual about Gray’s fascination.” Like many parents we know, she’s agonized over decisions to buy him even innocuous-seeming toys like water pistols or Nerf crossbows. Here, parenting experts discuss whether stemming the tide of toy weapons at home will have any impact on kids’ imaginary violence—or if it’s even worth curbing at all.

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a little kid pretending to be a superhero

If you focus on toys, you’re missing the point

Simply cutting a child off from a certain type of toy (or prohibiting laser tag…or paintball…or arcades) will do nothing to limit his exposure to weapons in the media, in video games and, as he grows up, the national news. Moreover, as Jones herself writes, “Anyone who has been a child understands that forbidding something can make a child’s interest in it multiply.” Reprimanding small kids for completely typical, pretend play can have a shaming effect that cuts off open communication, experts add. They argue that whether a child plays with a water gun at a pool party is far less significant than how his parents talk with him—at an appropriate age—about endemic violence, healthy methods of defusing anger, conflict resolution and following safety protocols at school, in public spaces and in other people’s homes where real guns might be present. “Regardless of where we live or how safe we feel, parents need to take steps to protect their kids from gun violence,” writes parenting columnist Melinda Wenner Moyer on Slate. “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.” In fact, she adds, “researchers speculate that when kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions.”

two young boys playing a violent video game

How can it hurt to abstain?

Toronto writer Kevin Naulls recalls being on a playdate with his four-year-old at the home of another family, where a plentiful stash of toy guns was strewn across the carpet. He writes: “The moms said that it’s not worth trying to curb this impulse, because they are going to be exposed to it anyway. But I have a problem with that casual theory. Yes, exposure can be important for understanding an idea, but that doesn’t mean you drop a molded plastic AR-15 in a child’s lap and expect they'll come to the realization on their own that it is a weapon modeled after something designed to kill, and that killing people is wrong. A child can touch a hot stove and they'll learn that it burns, and they probably won't do it again. But with a toy gun, there isn't a similar outcome. Associating guns with fun is a problem, because it doesn't challenge the tool itself as a problem...If we don’t have these uncomfortable, difficult conversations about guns and what’s happening right now, and literally stop buying them, we’re complicit. By saying ‘at that age everything is a gun,’ we’re normalizing the violence, and desensitizing children from such a young age….I don’t think all kids who play with guns are going to kill their parents, nor take a gun to a public space and devastate a community. I don’t think video games or Marilyn Manson caused Columbine. But I do think selling toy guns to children is incomprehensible, with absolutely no foreseeable benefit…That’s a decision for every parent to make for themselves, of course. But if you ask me, I’d say nothing at all that mimics the cause and effect of gun violence. That means no replicas of military-grade weaponry, and no handguns (that includes the pistols you can fill with water). But it also means no soft dart guns…I don’t think a paint job and a super-fun name is enough of a distance between fantasy and reality. If it looks like it could be or has been used to murder anyone, then it’s a pass for me…So instead of stopping in that aisle of the toy store, and grabbing that ultra-realistic toy M16 with no recoil, I think we should be asking why it’s there at all. And then we should go home and tell our kids we love them today and every day, and throw all the toy guns we’ve ever bought in the trash. We should teach them now while they’re young, because right now is when they’re listening.”

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