Toy Guns and Carefully Shaped Pieces of Seaweed

17

2 February 2013 by thaliakr

Kid With Gun

Kid With Gun (Photo credit: agitprop)

Like many of you, I feel almost unresolvably torn when it comes to little kids and games of murder.

Raising SBJ to be a kind, non-violent man is a high priority for us, so what do we do about games of cops and robbers or pirates?

My besties Nicholas, Richard and I played ‘Luke and Leia‘ every lunchtime for a year when I was six, but I have developed neither Jedi levitation nor light sabre violence as adult pursuits. I do realise that my distaste for seeing kids play violent games is not really about my boy turning into a little monster if he brandishes a weapon in play. 

Still, fundamentally, viscerally, I don’t want SBJ to play with toy guns. Firearms are just too misused among humans in the 21st century, from domestic violence to school shootings to the couple of dozen wars going on right now. I’m not coming out against hunters or target shooters, but I am hugely relieved that I live in New Zealand, where I don’t know a single person who has a gun in the house ‘for protection.’

I am anti-gun at heart and I can’t imagine having one – real or pretend – in the house. For the sake of consistency, it’s hard to approve then of water pistols, swords or even light sabres.

But I also don’t want to be in the business of banning things. Certainly not such a long list of things (including pieces of toast that go pew pew!), and certainly not when it is likely to be such a losing battle. Every mother has a story of being shot with a teaspoon or teddy bear or whatever was to hand when her kid – or even teenager – was in the mood for making shooting noises.

I’m torn. The only good solution seems to be SBJ spontaneously deciding never to go near a weapon in play, which I won’t be counting on. Is the only other answer to sigh and turn a blind eye?

This recent article makes for interesting reading, and might just get me off the idealogical hook. Rachel Marie Stone writes in her.meneutics about child psychology research on kids, violence and play:

Early this month, a six-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, was suspended from school after he pointed his finger like a gun and said, “pow.” In a letter to his parents, school officials described the incident as one in which their son “threatened to shoot a student.”

In one way, this reaction is understandable. After the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, seeing any sort of gunplay at school would be, on a gut level, distressing. This sort of reaction certainly has historical precedent: in 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog pulled all toy guns from its pages.

But, beyond visceral reactions—exclamations of distaste at child behavior that uncomfortably resonates with tragedy—does pretend violence perpetuate real violence?

Not necessarily. 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.”

But parents and teachers—like the teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland—are often not inclined to see it that way.”Teachers…often see normal rough and tumble play behavior such as hitting, diving, wrestling, (all done with a smile, between friends who stay friends), not as a state of play, but one of anarchy that must be controlled.”

In a study of adults who had committed violent crimes, including the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho, Brown discovered that their childhoods had been marked not by violent play but, more strangely, by a lack of play: the very thing that helps people, especially little people, work through conflict and aggression safely and productively.

[Read on for more of the research findings and for the seaweed reference.]

I think this is the first time I’ve read a rationale of letting kids play with guns that has some moral and psychological consistency and matches up with my parenting values.

There will still be the need for conversations about play violence and real violence, and I won’t be wrapping any guns in birthday paper anytime soon, but these ideas have helped me to relax a bit internally.

How about you?

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17 thoughts on “Toy Guns and Carefully Shaped Pieces of Seaweed

  1. Donna Mudge says:

    Interesting read :-) there is no tight or wrong u as a patent get to decide. However I had cousins who were not allowed any guns or weapons as toys. 1 grew up and went to the army as soon as he could. And the other the first thing he made at woodwork was a play gun. Not being allowed them will it make it a taboo and make him want one anyway? Just thought you’d be interested :-)

  2. SKATERAK says:

    Another useful topic to raise. When our boys were young, I was adamant that they would never play with gun like toys, including water pistols and so on, for the reasons you mentioned at first. But I also don’t like to be banning things from them as it unlikely to have any long lasting effect.

    I do think there is a wide gap between playing with nerf guns and water pistols and children developing violent tendencies which become a huge problem in later life. I think children become violent for other reasons and these are not always related to having triggered toys in the box. Children being exposed to large (or any) amounts of violent TV or computer gaming can not be good, for example. Children who are lonely, depressed, attention seeking, unable to handle conflict, spoilt and so on are at risk of being violent – with our without a gun.

    Look at lion cubs, they wrestle and bite each other to learn the boundaries between fighting and playing. Mother is there to step in if the lesson is not being learnt. Last year our boys bought their own small nerf guns with suckers on the end of foam bullets. There were a handful of rules about their usage and we don’t have any problems with them.

    I do not like guns at all. They serve one, terrible purpose. But, if my boys want to be hunters or even military men, I hope the way they are raised will bring the best out of them in these roles.

    • Great response as usual, Skate.

      I thought the her.meneutics article was very helpful in backing what you say, that violent adults are that way for lots of reasons, but playing cowboys is pretty low down the list.

  3. Alex says:

    Wise words. I think (one of) my problem(s) is going to be learning to distinguish between play and actual fighting, and therefore learning when to step in and when to stand back. My instinct at the moment is to always step in, but I’m pretty sure that’s not helpful or healthy in the long term (and downright impossible as far as school etc is concerned).

  4. Alana says:

    I also feel very uncomfortable with the idea of firearms for personal protection and see the situation that the USA is in as pretty abhorrent. However, as the daughter of a very much non-violent father who is a competitive target shooter, sometime rabbit/possum hunter and failed deer stalker, I feel quite comfortable with guns used for sport and leisure. My mother is also a farmer and has a gun on the farm to help with putting any terminally ill animals out of their misery.

    Our first shooting lesson was when I was age 6 and my younger brother was 4. Dad also entered us in a number of under-12s target shooting competitions. Part of our childhood experience involved learning to respect and be safe around firearms. One of your first lessons is that you never ever point a gun (whether loaded or not) in the direction of another person. I perhaps wonder if this is why my younger brother was not very interested in point-and-shoot style play as a little boy. He very much loved wrestling though, as well as the bow and arrow set where he could fire a suction arrow onto the ceiling and then watch it drop onto unsuspecting guests.

    Like Rachel Mary Stone, I agree that role play can help with learning boundaries and that rough-and-tumble is part of healthy play. It can also provide teachable moments (ie. when do you cross the line from play to hurting someone, when does it go from fun with equals to one child being victimised, how do you manage apology and forgiveness when you unwittingly get carried away). I also wonder if it provides boys with a more culturally accepted method for physical contact. I believe that fathers are important in role modeling appropriate rough-and-tumble (even though they seem to get carried away sometimes also!).

    • That’s very interesting to hear, Alana, thanks.

      For me, rough-and-tumble play, grounded in physical reality is in a very different category from fantasy murder, which is what gun play is. Some of my fondest memories of youth group leadership were watching Rod take on the teenage boys at wrestling and how much fun they had.

  5. I think television is a much bigger threat to emotional stability than any form of play (even with toy guns). It gives an all-pervading sense that the world is just a collection of commodities that you too can have if you are brash and unscrupulous enough. Then there is all the violence…

    • Jason, by television are you partly meaning advertising? I’m just remembering, from Caroline’s comments below, that the UK readers have ad-free kids programming available to them free-to-air, which is pretty different from NZ and the US among other places. What about where you are?

      • Caroline says:

        Yes – I think we easily forget how lucky we are to have ad-free TV in the UK. It makes a big difference to how happy I am to let them watch. The programmes are also well designed to be educational or enriching in some way.

      • In Spain where I live there are lots of ads all the time. As I don’t watch the television much I am not even sure if the national TV channels have ads or not. What ignorance! It is hard to distinguish the advertising from the programmes anyway. Is a PowerRangers toy a spin off for the programme or is the programme an advertisment for the merchandise?

  6. Caroline says:

    That’s a really interesting article, Thalia – thanks for highlighting it. It would seem odd if something that seems to come naturally to so many children – playfighting & wrestling, including using guns & swords – actually caused long term damage.

    While I don’t think that age-appropriate TV does much harm, unless it’s on 24/7, I do think that very violent TV or lots of violent computer games is probably damaging, particularly when they are played to the exclusion of other social interaction. It’s difficult to tell though whether screen violence causes violence in the observer or whether people who get obsessed with that sort of thing are already pre-disposed to be violent anyway. There was certainly lots of violence around (particularly, I suspect, domestic violence that wasn’t talked about) before the advent of computer games.

    Assuming you decide to relax your position on playfighting and toy guns, does the article harden your opinion against screen violence (when SBJ reaches teenage years obviously) and do you think you’ll be able to influence him by then anyway?

    BTW: however you decide to approach this, I’m sure SBJ will grow up to be “kind” and “non-violent” just like his parents.

  7. Thanks, Caroline :)

    Screen violence and influencing teenagers? That sounds like two new series!

  8. Thanks for the great discussion, guys.

    I’ll just interject with this fabulous conversation at blue milk, between a dad and a three-year-old playing guns: http://bluemilk.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/more-gun-talk/

    • Caroline says:

      Ha! That’s brilliant – I can just imagine the kid going to nursery the next day and telling the teachers he is morally ambiguous!

  9. andrew says:

    How do you get him to see that part of being a man is defending your family if someone attacks them? it almost seems that the play fighting of childhood can act to prepare and cements the view that men are protectors of weaker parties. In terms of physical harm in NZ, most domestic violence would happen without (the man normally) using anything more than physical strength.

    like most things, i guess it is a changed heart that is needed more than restricting access to particular categories of toy.

    on a wider view, eroding what it is to be a man in our current society, and what it is that a man does that makes him special probably makes it harder for boys and men to know what society expects of them.

    • SKATERAK says:

      This is an incredibly good question. That line between protecting and fighting. Children must learn to protect, also. I lived somewhere once where I kept a heavy stick next to my bed as break-ins were common. I would not have nesitated to have used it either. At the same time, I was (trying) to teach my boys not to hit each other…

      Communication is always important, I suppose. Children and not thick. They can learn the difference between these things. If you see someone being beaten up on the playground, go and help. But, don’t be the one doing the beating up. Having conversations with them and asking them their opinions on hitting, fighting, shooting is also very helpful. If childern in my class (I am a teacher) hit each other, I ask them “Do you want to be in a class where people hit each other?” They always answer appropriately because everyone wants to feel safe.

      I am really glad you asked that questions. It’s been on my mind all day.

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