Kids and Guns

PSP members share their insight about kids and obsessions with guns.

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A PSP member writes to the group:

"I guess it had to happen sooner or later ... after working his way through cars, trains, spaceships, and other innocuous fascinations, our sweet, non-aggressive son has discovered the wonders of guns. It's our own fault, of course, for having allowed The Incredibles (forgetting about the body count) and The Iron Giant (having remembered the sweetness and forgotten the military intensity) into the DVD rotation. And having allowed him to play with older, gun-savvy kids, and to be born in the U.S. ...

Now, everything is a gun: sticks, a stuffed fabric toy power drill, a small hand pump ... he's not super-violent or anything; mostly, he just points and says "I'm shooting at it! This is my gun," that kind of thing.

We've tried to talk with him about it, but get over our heads pretty quickly. "Only bad people use guns. Well, except the police ... and the army, I guess. Except that the army people in The Iron Giant shouldn't be using their guns, but they're confused and scared. And The Iron Giant does turn into a gun, yes, but that's only because they started shooting him first ... but then he decided he didn't want to be a gun, because he didn't want to hurt people, and he learned that guns are bad. Unless they're being used to stop bad guys, in which case you still should try to avoid hurting people ..."

We try to steer him toward different ways to use his imagination, and tell him we don't like to play the gun game, etc., but you can imagine how effective this tends to be.

My mom reassures me with the story of my 4-year-old self begging and pleading for a toy gun (this, during the era of peace signs and my mom's ever-present "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" pendant), saying "I promise not to become a bad man!" They finally relented, and I spend many years shooting everything in sight... and now, as an adult, I don't even like to kill bugs, couldn't make it through more than a few episodes of The Sopranos before the violence turned me off for good, and carry the tragedy of Iraq around with me like a cancer in the pit of my stomach.

Now, we're not about to buy him a toy gun; my question is, how should we handle this fascination in general, and what should our expectations be? Will this run its course, and fade into the background along with other imaginative fads? Which is better: to let your kids pretend to have guns, or have a zero-tolerance policy that just adds to their mystery and appeal? I've been told that gun-themed play is a way for little kids to feel less powerless as they become more aware of the big world around them; of course, guns = power isn't quite an ideal coping mechanism ... or is this too much pop psychologizing, and it really boils down to, guns make big noises, cause commotion, and make grownups uneasy, so what 4 year old boy wouldn't love them?

I read somewhere recently (wish I could remember where) a parent's rule of thumb that as long as everyone's laughing, it's okay to pretend-gunfight; but if it gets aggressive or non-fun, it should be cut off. Does that make sense?

You get the picture. Parents--how have you dealt with this?"


Summary from the original poster:

"Here are a few highlights of the recent Boys and Guns thread. Thanks again to everyone who responded! The consensus: every boy goes through this; while we can't entirely prevent or control it (and maybe shouldn't), our role is to make sure they know what's real and what isn't, and focus on the kind of moral education that will ensure that their fantasy gunplay never evolves into the real thing.
Meanwhile, my son's guns now shoot only ice cream, which causes severe stomach aches and brain-freezes, but is rarely fatal."


PSP member replies:


Explain reality vs. fantasy:

"We emphasize what's real and what's not real .... that is - we never get into a discussion of what happens in movies because it's understood that it's not real and therefore - doesn't need to be explained. Perhaps that would help explain the difference between why it's okay for the police and the army to have guns vs discussions of the Iron Giant....
In general, I do think that this gets played out but probably not for a long time... so I wouldn't count on that..."


Is it just a normal part of childhood?

"I feel for you. I haven't dealt with this too much. After a viewing of Bambi my daughter played hunter for a while. My feeling is that if it's all about the imagination, there is no harm in it -- let kids work out their understanding of all this violence through play. I remember being a kid and fantasizing about having a magic gun that could kill other kids I didn't like - it would just magically make them disappear (no blood or gore). I'm sure my parents would have been disturbed to know that I was unhappy in that way, but it's all a part of childhood. As long as he's not harming other kids or being overly aggressive, I wouldn't worry about it."


"I went through the EXACT same phase when I was a wee lad and my parents had the same dilemma - "do we indulge this interest and let him work it out of his system, or do we put our foot down and say absolutely not to guns?" They were going to put their foot down until they realized that denying me access was causing me to turn EVERYTHING into a gun - rocks, sticks, my hand, etc. So, they decided it was better to not create a fixation in my little brain and to basically give me all the guns I wanted... with a single basic ground rule. The rule was: never point a gun at another person or animal. Simple but clear. So long as I stuck to it I was allowed to play with my guns all I wanted. And so I did for a good...oh, 5-6 years. And then I was done with it and have never looked back. They did of course constantly reinforce the rule in my head, and on the occasions where I slipped they temporarily took the guns away."


"I watched several friends get angry with their sons when they played shoot em up at 4 and 5 and 6. Getting angry didn't work and as soon as their moms weren't around they did it anyway. My son out grew it as did they and it was much easier on us all not to argue about it."


How much are parents projecting onto their children?

"I think that our fear of seeing children with guns is more about us than about them. What probably counts more is the value we place on human life, the respect and regard we teach our children to show of other people. If we live in a more violent world, it's probably at least partially to do with losing our connections with other people, the inability to summon up empathy and perhaps a preoccupation with our own needs at the expense of other people's. Maybe the gun obsession is the way into that discussion. As it happens, all the gun obsessed little boys I have ever known have grown into lovely, caring and gentle adults, so perhaps that's an indication that these things are more complex than we'd like to think they are.... The most awkward discussions I've had to have with my son (awkward for me not for him so far) have been about what tanks are used for. "Moving soldiers", doesn't really cut it. He was very upset when Chick Hicks, the bad car from Disney's "Cars" made other cars crash. "Why did he want to hurt the other cars?". Can "but why would the tank shoot at people?" be far behind? It's times like that I appreciate being a parent, as painful as it is that my son will learn all about these terrible things, because for the first time I feel an absolutely personal stake in creating a world in which these discussions remain abstract."


Use this as a teaching opportunity to discuss gun violence and pacifism:

"We went through this as well with our son. We didn't allow toy guns and for awhile anything that could turn into a gun became one. We felt that the trick was not to make the guns too attractive by turning the whole thing into a power play that's more about the fun of bothering dad and less about the guns themselves. So we explained over and over that watching gun play bothered us and made us sad because we knew that real guns killed people and wounded them and caused a lot of real grief and sadness in the world. When he turned other things into guns we didn't prohibit the play but we did try to discourage it. Later, were firm about violence in video and computer games later when that became an issue. When we saw violence in movies like the Incredibles sometimes we would say that we were sorry to see it, that we felt it detracted from the movie, etc. Our son is now 15 and passionately opposed to violence, the war in Iraq, etc. It's true that many people who played with guns as kids, like my husband, grew into pacifist people. But I think it's our privilege and duty as parents to transmit to our kids those values we think are important, and to let them see that we don't, and they shouldn't swallow popular culture whole. Just my opinion."


Don't feed your fear:

"Yes, it's playing at having power, no it doesn't mean your kid is going to end up violent. I sympathize entirely, my sweet, innocent and kind 11-year-olds are seriously into shooting, and I blame myself for having bought them Star Wars Battlefront computer game last summer, not realizing what it was. And I find myself saying on a regular basis "you know that in real life, shooting someone really hurts?!" "MOO-OMM we're ONLY pretending!" And I cringe and even get angry when they run outside to play with their Star Wars "Blasters", which look just like machine guns, and show off in front of the neighborhood little children. I think that others must get a terrible impression of what kind of kids they are. It really is just play. And the fact of the matter is that my boys really are sweet, innocent and kind at core, and I'm sure that yours is too. The only thing I can tell you from my experience is that not allowing guns at all in the house will make them obsessed. I let my kids have two pistol caps when they were about 6, and whenever their friends came over (who weren't allowed to have guns), that is ALL that the friends wanted to play with, they were abnormally obsessed with them!"

"Is not your fault !!! Fairy wands turn to swords and knives. Fishing poles become swords and guns. The more of a production you make of it the more obsessed they will become Just remind him that killing isn't good and that it is just pretend. I know that I will get flamed for appearing to not care as much as others. But they out grow it. My 14 year old knows that killing and war is no good He had water guns ( bring yellow and lime green once) and had swords and laser guns and even had an old musket (used to be a revolutionary war soldier in George Washington's army) All the books we read told us it was hard wired in boys and no matter what you did they will still pick up a stick, or even a pencil and pretend to shoot with it. The more you protest the more they will do it. As long as they know right from wrong, it shall pass."


Diffuse the violence with play:

"There's a story in playful parenting in which the writer's child is having a playdate and the visitor is engaging in some gun-play. the dad is bothered, but instead of trying to outlaw the guns, he says something like "oh no, don't shoot me with the love gun!" and makes a big game of chasing the child around, goofily acting lovey-dovey and silly with each "hit." i actually did something similar once when a "big kid" in the playground was getting into some kind of disagreement with my toddler that revolved around an imaginary gun, and it all worked out rather well, i believe we ended up with a gun that shot ice cream and chocolate syrup. and when i told him that my then-pregnant belly was huge from all the ice-cream, i very much enjoyed hearing him say "no that's a BABY!!!"

I'm not suggesting that you should/have to do something like that every time... i think there's also something to be said for kids being able to work through issues of anger and/or power etc through play, with direction/assistance (better to play "act out" against dolls or parents who are in on it than to end up in a real fight with other kids).

Trying to forbid pretend guns altogether just won't work and will make it more of an exciting taboo. i'd also really recommend the book playful parenting by lawrence cohen, as i remember really appreciating his take on toy guns and i just love the book in general."


"Ah, this has been the bane of our parental existence twice now. My youngest is now five and he is the quintessential 'macho man' (and I don't mean the Village People). Everything is a gun, from a stick to a sandwich. When he grows up, he wants to be either a soldier or an NFL Quarterback. This is a little weird coming from the son of the peace-protesting, feminist-collective member and the nerdy peace-protester who married her. Part of the problem may be that our oldest, albeit less militaristic son, wore us down. The edict went from nothing remotely warlike to, no violent TV and no toy weapons, to no realistic looking weapons, to no guns, down to its current toothless "nothing that could actually be mistaken for an AK 47 or Saturday night special on close examination." I suspected it was all over when my older son took apart his brand new toy stroller, in gender neutral lavender, to make guns out of the plastic parts of the canopy and used them to shoot the dolly (after he banged her against the floor a few times.sad but very true story). I KNEW it was all over the night I came home late from work and saw all my boys (40+, 10, and 3) lined up on the sofa eating pizza engrossed in Lord of the Rings. By hooking the TV up to the stereo, you get really 'lifelike' battle sounds, did you know? The control that a previous poster posited makes a lot of sense. When you are small and helpless, super-heroes and blaster guns make you feel strong and powerful. When you are grown, watching war and playing warlike games takes out aggressions and makes you feel like the weak really can win with the right hardware. What scares me, though, is that humans are a pretty violent, warlike species (just watch the news) so maybe kids just feel more comfortable saying it out loud. Our society also has so much violent information (the original poster points this out - if guns are bad, why do police carry them, etc.) that it is very hard to make a convincing case to the kids. Our oldest never watched the likes of Spiderman 3 at a young age and it didn't help, so we decided not to bother depriving the younger one of the cultural references. His brother was once ostracized for half of 1st grade because we had forbidden TV Wrestling."


"I think that this is an issue that comes up at similar ages for most kids and I think that it is two issues that converge:
1. An increased awareness of powerlessness and thus an increased desire for power, especially fantasies of powerful acts.
2. Strong gender identification. Ages three and four, from what I remember from child psychology courses, are strong gender identification years: I am a girl/boy, and girls/boys do --fill in the blank-- . I have girls, so my five year old, at three and four, started strongly identifying with princesses, and their imperiousness, and their ability to have benevolent power over others, and wave their magic wand around, and order others around, and in general look important (pink gown) and special. She is completely over princesses now, and instead wants to be a writer. No matter how careful we are (and I'm not that careful), gender influences are strong and everywhere, so it's hard for girls to not see princesses as the ultimate gender identity, and I imagine for boys, super heroes are the ultimate powerful gender representation. So I do think it is a stage, and I think it is probably pretty important for kids to indulge in relatively harmless fantasies about their power and their gender. Bruno Bettelheim, in his book: The Uses of Enchantment, had some interesting things to say about the power of fairy tales for kids, which I think is related to this topic.
This too shall pass. Also, I know someone who highly discouraged his girl from playing princesses and barbies, and now she is kind of stuck with a fascination about those things seemingly instead of being able to just move on when she's had enough. Good  luck! You might want to look into what Quaker parents do about their boys who develop a fascination with guns.


Demonstrate through "play" what happens when guns are fired

"My 4 year old is similarly obsessed, after loving ballet and African dancing. I was/am crest fallen, embarrassed, and appalled. So, I completely overreacted with a no gun policy. Well, as you can imagine, that worked not at all. I then read some articles whichseemed to uniformly suggest that we should let the kids work it through. My favorite piece of advice, from some parenting magazine, is when you child shoots at you, the best course of action is to grab your heart and fall down. I wish I had followed it instead of all of the "heart-to-heart" discussions I inflicted on my kid child who would then look at me and claim, "but mom I am only playing!!!"




"Just a note to say how much I've appreciated the thoughtfulness and wisdom of this entire dialogue - and many thanks to you, Dan beginning this and compiling these responses. I've been "lurking" on this thread from the sidelines - my kid is not quite four and not quite into the gun thing right now - but I'm anticipating it and also anticipating the quandary. I find the messages of  1) appreciating how important it is to see this from a child's vantage point, not just from our own adult concerns and anxieties, and 2) understanding how this is one form of children's natural outlet for aggression, and better met with understated play-along than with handwringing - particularly helpful.
This is why I'm on this list, even though I'm an interloper from Brooklyn Heights!"


Interesting reading from around the web:


The Price of Valor
by Dan Baum July 12, 2004


My Boys Like Shootouts. What's Wrong With That? By Jonathan Turley Sunday, February 25, 2007
"Our 4-year-old son is also fascinated by guns, swords and all other kinds of weapons. We try to put his passion to productive use ("Bullet starts with 'b'... ") and indulge it to a point, within the bounds of safety, etc. Anyway, here's a wonderful article from the Washington Post on the topic. Good luck (and have fun)!"