By Bethany Hardy
I blame George Washington for my son’s obsession with guns.
It all started when my husband took our preschooler to Mount Vernon, home to the "father of our country." They came home with a tricorner hat, a compass, and a cute little wooden popgun. That was last year. Today, our house is littered with toy slingshots, cannons, and guns—the result of a growing fascination with “good guys,” “bad guys,” and all of the banging and kabooming that goes on in between.
Until recently, I had become adept at making jokes about my son’s fascination with toy guns. I figured, this is probably just a phase; it will pass soon enough, right? Unfortunately, the horrific shootings in Tucson, Arizona have shed glaring new light on the gun play in my house. Can a fascination with guns go too far?
First, a basic question: Are little boys predisposed to gun play?
“All one needs to do is look around to see that a connection exists,” says Joshua Weiner, an Arlington, Virginia-based psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents. “This connection is likely—like most things—a combination of genetics and environment.”
In today’s society, it is difficult to shield a child from “expressions of violence,” whether they come from television shows, video games or even older siblings and friends, Weiner notes. “Boys are likely predisposed to respond.”
“Boys probably have some yet-unknown gene which contributes to this behavior,” he adds. “Think about men being the hunter/gatherer and needing to kill for food and to protect their family.”
Still, identifying the ancestral underpinnings of aggression in boys doesn’t make it any easier for parents.
Molly Wilkinson Johnson, a mom of one in Huntsville, Alabama, remembers feeling “chills” when a boy pointed a toy gun at her infant son: “And yet I can see my baby being that five-year-old in a few years!”
Here are six things parents can do to ensure that a child’s interest in toy guns doesn’t get out of hand:
Instead of talking at your son about guns (“Guns are dangerous!” “Don’t do that!”) talk with him. His understanding of guns is probably less sophisticated than you think.
Ask open-ended questions to acknowledge the play and spur conversation: “Looks like you’re having fun. What are you doing?” And gently but consistently underscore the difference between real and toy guns by emphasizing how much fun it is to “pretend.”
“I think exposure to violence on TV or video games should be a greater concern to parents than gun play,” says Weiner. “Repeated exposure has been demonstrated in studies to desensitize kids to violence. It is important to limit this exposure, especially in younger kids.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids be exposed to no more than one to two hours of “quality [television] programming” per day. Read more about managing your child’s consumption of media.
As long as playing with toy guns doesn’t dominate a child’s time, it’s okay to let him explore it, says Weiner—provided a parent or trusted adult is watching.
“Many young kids (under age five) don't even understand what shooting someone really means,” he says. “The shooting is more about power, fantasy and imagination—not killing and death.”
That said, “If all your son wants to do is engage in gun play, you need to place limits like you would on any other activity done in excess,” Weiner notes. “In this case, parents should consider taking the guns away and talking with their child about their concerns.”
I try to limit the toy guns we have in our house to those that look nothing like real guns—the more colorful, the better.
Kelley Columber, a mother of two from Blue Hill, Maine, agrees: “We have foam-ball popper guns, nothing assault weapon-looking.”
She adds that reminding kids about proper toy gun etiquette is key: “We don't point at faces or at people who ‘aren't playing.’”
Achieving the simple goal of hitting a target with a foam-ball gun can be extremely satisfying for an active little boy, and it helps develop hand-eye coordination to boot.
Just draw a bull’s-eye on a white board or make a pyramid of empty soda cans, and you’re good to go, says Kelly Moore, a mom of three from Denver, Colorado.
There’s an added benefit, she says: “The boys can be competitive and have fun without accidentally hurting each other.”
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth pointing out: if you choose to have real guns in your home, it’s imperative to help your children understand and respect their power.
“I teach my boys that all guns are to be treated as loaded, even if unloaded, and that a safety is a mechanical device that can and will fail,” says Jason Wires, a father of three from Cleveland, Ohio.
Above all, be approachable. Knowing that Mom, Dad or another trusted adult is always available to answer questions will help your children process their curiosity about the gun-related messages society sends. And in the long run, you’ll keep your kids safer.
Bethany Hardy is a Washington, DC-based mom, writer and communications consultant.