What do you do when your sweet child (most likely a boy) suddenly turns everything – sticks, his finger, his sister’s Barbie doll – into a toy gun?
Why do children engage in pretend gun play? And what should parents do about it?
Violence Pervades Children’s Media
Media representations of violence assault children on a daily basis.
Children ages 3-7 watch an average of three hours of television per day, much of it focused on violence – either “for fun” in cartoons and other fictional stories, or on the news.
According to Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige in their book, The War Play Dilemma, “it is now estimated that by the end of elementary school, the average child will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on the TV screen.”
Additionally, PG-13 and R rated movies often have toy, clothing, and costume tie-ins marketed to an audience far younger than the recommended viewing ages for the movies themselves. Even PG movies may heavily feature fighting sequences; LEGO recommends its Star Wars sets for children as young as five, and four year-olds can dress up in Iron Man costumes. Society bombards children – particularly boys – with powerful and seemingly positive images of aggression.
Children Use Pretend Play to Work Through Real Issues
According to Dr. Todd Huffman, a pediatrician in Eugene, Oregon, children re-enact the scripts that they know. These scripts can come from television, books, parents, older siblings, or playmates. Children exposed to violence will incorporate it into their play. According to Dr. Huffman, this type of pretend play is not necessarily harmful.
Play is a way for children to solve problems, release frustration, and to test or even “change” the script. He gives an example of children playing cops and robbers. For the game to work, children need to change the rules about death unless they want the game to end as soon as one person is “shot.” Children often take turns playing each role and spend time negotiating the rules of their pretend play, practicing social skills along the way.
Pretend Violence Does Not Lead to Real Violence
Dr. Huffman explained to Decoded Parenting that pretend violence is not typically a precursor to the real thing. As long as children follow the negotiated rules, everyone’s laughing, all children are having fun, and there is no actual aggression involved, such play is harmless.
Parents will want to step in if children do express a real intent to harm another in play or if they use play guns outside of a play context; for example, if a child points his “shooting” finger at his sister when he is mad at her.
Parents may want to refrain from “arming” their children with realistic toy guns. Sticks, block guns, and guns built from other found objects bring an imagination component to the child’s play and encourage them to create their own worlds.
Plastic guns modeled after ones in a movie encourage children to follow the script as already written. They can also pose a danger to the child using them in certain situations.
No parent wants an armed adult to mistake their child’s realistic-looking toy gun for the real thing, and federal law now requires all newly manufactured toy guns to feature orange caps to distinguish between real and toy firearms.
Preschool Pretend vs. Pre-Teen Video Games
Dr. Huffman also makes a distinction between the pretend play of a preschooler and the video games of a pre-teen. Pretend play involves imagination, negotiation of rules, and social interaction between players. Children learn to regulate their behavior based on the needs of their playmates, as when one child dials back the rough-housing because his friend asks for a break.
Gaming, even if done side by side, is a solitary endeavor. The computer has no feelings, doesn’t adapt based on the controller’s emotions and doesn’t ask the controller to adapt. There is no social-emotional learning taking place.
The bottom line for parents is that children who adopt pretend gun play are not necessarily destined to become the neighborhood vigilante, and such play will not “teach” him violence.
However, parents can, and should, create boundaries. If pretend weapon play is the only game your child knows, and that play consists of not much more than saying “bang” while jumping around, he may need access to a different “script.”
Limit or manage TV viewing with violent content, and introduce your child to other types of active play. You can also place limits on the appropriate places and time for gun play.
Gun Play: Normal Development Stage
For some children, pretend gun play helps them process violent images. For other children, it is a way of safely dealing with feelings of aggression. For most children, it is a stage that will eventually pass. Parents can let the play continue as long as there is no real aggression and the play does not become an obsession.