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I've noticed a great many parents do everything within their power to prevent their children playing with toy guns and weapons. As a 30-something, I grew up with toy swords, bows and guns, action men (GI Joe's) and ninja turtles etc. I'd hope most people who know me would consider that I've turned into a reasonable and well-balanced adult, just as those who I grew up with have also done.

My son recently turned 1 and currently doesn't have any gun / weapon toys, but as he gets older I suspect there will come a time when he wants to play "Cops and Robbers" or similar. Currently I'm not against the idea of him having toy weapons, but at the same time I don't want to expose him to anything that'll turn him into a violent or aggressive adult.

Most sources I've read state there's no correlation:

No study has yet linked pretend gunplay to future violent behavior, and most child experts agree that by forbidding gunplay entirely, parents give it far more power and will probably drive it underground.

Source 1

I've always thought that children don't really relate this type of play to violence and that it's more about good verses evil - but it's important to ensure they have some context / awareness of how to role-play those scenarios appropriately. Echoed by this article:

That doesn't mean this type of play is about violence, however. According to Thompson, it's really about dominance and heroism, winning and losing, and who gets to be the good guy in the end. Sometimes "there is aggression and hurtfulness, and that must be stopped," Thompson says.

Source 2

Is preventing children playing with toy guns more a projection of the parents views or is it from a genuine belief (or study) that it is likely to harm the child's development?

If you don't let your child play with weapons, can you explain your rationale?

Likewise, if you do - why? Also, do you impose any controls or limits around play "violence"?


Update

A few people have asked for background information on my location and laws here:

I'm from the UK, so access to a real gun by a child is very remote. Toy guns are legal, but almost all I see for sale are in bright / unrealistic colours etc. As others have mentioned, wherever you live, it's probably wise to ensure a toy can be identified as such from a distance.

However (despite the title), my question isn't gun specific - I'm interested in how to ensure "violent" play (including swords and bows etc.) doesn't encourage real violence or aggression. So, as one answerer touched upon - how they teach a kitchen knife isn't for playing with is valid in this context.

  • Related – user420 Oct 1 '14 at 12:15
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    We allow toy guns, with a few rules. First, no 'shooting' people or pets. Second, threatening with them (saying "I'm gonna shoot you" when he's mad) results in that gun being thrown away. He's free to run around shooting doors and chairs all he wants though. – Bobo Oct 1 '14 at 17:06
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    @Bobo +1 for the no shooting out of anger/defiance. I am fine with "shooting" people that have agreed to participate in the game, though. Guns aren't only valuable for target shooting, they are useful in the developing sense of good vs evil. – Eric Wilson Oct 2 '14 at 11:50
  • @SQB I've added the update as requested. – Michael Oct 2 '14 at 13:52
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    even if you don't allow your children to play with them, they'll turn bananas, sticks, etc into them – warren Oct 8 '14 at 13:49
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I take what I consider to be a pragmatic approach: if there is no toy which is obviously a gun, kids just make their own (60-80% of boys, 30% of girls, play with "aggressive toys" of some variety). Fingers, sticks, coat hangers (which double as pretty decent fighter planes and space ships, IMHO), pencils/pens, cardboard tubes (packing tubes make great bazookas!), rocks, air, etc. And nerf/water guns can be an awful lot of fun, for kids and adults! So I don't ban make-believe or toy guns, because I think that just encourages them to learn the lesson "just don't let dad see you do that, even though it's obviously harmless" (from the kid's point of view).

However, I avoid "realistic looking" guns, even though I had them as a kid. Why? Partly out of a concern for genuine misunderstanding at school or while running around - a reasonable person shouldn't have to wonder "is that kid running around with a real gun?"

If they ask for a real looking gun, I just explain to them why I avoid them just like that - if you saw someone running around with that, especially without that little orange cap, how would you know from far away if it was real or fake? With a little explanation I always found my kids could understand how that might be bad for them (and we discussed wit with some detail right there), and then we mutually expressed how cool it looked anyway but agreed it wasn't worth it.

I also avoid them because, having a real-looking gun pointed at me isn't fun for me because I've been threatened by actual guns, while having a water gun pointed at me just makes me say "do not shoot me with that, I don't want to get wet!"

I also make a point to explain this also to my kids in age-appropriate ways - so they understand why some people might actually not want something pointed at them! If everyone who's playing isn't having fun, it isn't really fun!

So I find the fun and naturalness of play-fighting to be reasonable and healthy, and encourage whatever obviously-child-play thing boys and girls like to do. My hope is that I am able teach the lesson by direct analogy: that play sword doesn't cut, but knives do, right? That play gun doesn't hurt, but a gun - just like a kitchen knife - does really hurt. Since kids get cuts and scrapes, this seems intelligible enough to them.

I also accept that any amount of explanation about the difference in play and reality is going to be insufficient to inoculate them against danger. It's an open, ongoing conversation about limits that include when something is funny and when it's just mean, the limits of allowable play-fighting, what sort of things are most dangerous, and all those other really important life topics. Toys - which and when - are part of that conversation between a parent and child, and I think it's more important that you have that ongoing conversation than any particular decision.

Finally, I think the greatest danger of all is a false sense of security. If you think that playing with guns protects them from playing with real guns, you are both in grave danger; if you think banning gun toys protects them from playing with real guns, you are both in grave danger.

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    +1 for the last paragraph. Taking toy guns away won't teach them anything about real guns. It's better to use toy guns as lessons for how guns should be treated. – Bobo Oct 1 '14 at 17:04
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    I'm from the UK, so the chance of my son playing with a real gun is pretty remote. However, it's still something other countries might need to consider to ensure their children don't "play" with the real thing. – Michael Oct 2 '14 at 8:45
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    I think pragmatism is the best approach: my son's school has banned weapon-like toys, however we started to notice he was sneaking lego into school with him: turned out he was making tiny stealthy lego guns that he could hide/disassemble quickly(this was when he was 5). I live in the UK and encourage my kids to use powertools, bows, knives etc at every opportunity: with the proviso that I am present, that they behave responsibly with them & listen to guidance, or the privilege is revoked. They have yet to let me down:) (my boys are now 7 & 9 and still have all their bodyparts (as do I):) – GMasucci Oct 2 '14 at 12:32
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    So very true. My 3 years old don't know what a "gun" is (the word). But he's putting his lego together and makes himself a "pow-pow" to play with ... I think that last paragraph touch a very valid point. the kid have to learn the difference and the danger of playing and using a real one. This is what prevention is all about. The same will applies to punching dad when playing "monsters" and playing with another kid of his age ... or to hit with swords, to cut paper with scissors, even to sports(baseball bat), and every other potentially dangerous activity. – Thierry Savard Saucier Oct 3 '14 at 15:09
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Most important then if you should let your child play with toy A or toy B, is what you already posted in your question:

  • What are the effects this kind of play have in the children's psichology?

Remember toddlers and young children have trouble separating fantasy from reality. His nightmares and fantasies will seem as real as school to them.

You have to work around that. Estimulate critical thinking (ref #1) (ref #2) (ref #3) is a good thing always, and also instill a sense of ethics and moral development (ref #4). I really recommend reading the paper Fostering Goodness: Teaching Parents to Facilitate Children's Moral Development by Dr. Berkowitz.

In this way, you are enabling the child to assess (with your constant guidance) the dangers and problems with some objects or activities, be it climbing on the window sill or playing with guns.

After he is old enough to hold a conversation (very soon), talk to him. Ask him what are the dangers of the real object (as compared to the toy), and where the play "mindspace" ends and the "real thing" begins. Check if he can tell the difference from a toy to the real object. Remind him that he should only be playing with toys, and only in a safe way. When he apprehends his "robber", ask him "what should we do with this robber?". Discuss his response, and follow up with "what do we do with real robbers?", "is robbing ok?", "why not?".

To finish, example is the most compelling influence. The children will try to emulate adult behavior. So you have to be an example.

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    My sons seems to know the difference between his toy guitars and my real ones. I've taught him that he has to be careful with my guitars, but he's much more heavy handed with his toys. I think it should be relatively easy to keep his and my things separate - like toy power-tools etc. – Michael Oct 1 '14 at 16:32
  • I must say that, when I was very little, I was unaware that there was a relationship between the colorful, bubbly water gun like a super soaker and a gun. Nor do I think most small children would make that particular connection. They are about as meaningfully linked as a flapjack is to your friend Jack. – Ben I. May 31 '18 at 20:18
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Consider you answered your own question, you turned out okay, rationally recognizing the inherent dangers. There are important, legitimate, appropriate, responsible uses of weapons for defense, hunting to provide food, and sports. Its not just about violence, or playing cops & robbers.

Water, essential for life, is inherently dangerous. A child can drown in only a few inches of water. Would you never let your child near water, or teach the importance and danger, and how to swim.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user420 Oct 3 '14 at 14:40
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One of the purposes of toys is to give children a safe way to learn about dangerous things. So yes, you should not only allow, but encourage your children to play with toy guns, knives, hammers, saws, bows, etc.

The caveat is that you should also require them to treat the toy versions with the same level of care and respect that they would the real article.

I grew up with toy guns. I was expected to keep them clean. I was expected to keep them dry. I was expected to keep them "loaded" (dart in the dart gun, cap in the cap gun, etc.) I was expected not to abuse them. I was expected to keep my finger off the trigger unless I was actively pulling it. I wasn't supposed to touch someone else's gun without asking (and my parents would always make a point to ask permission before handling my toys unless I'd broken one of the rules.) And, most of all, I was expected to never, ever, EVER, point it at a human or animal. There was no such thing as an accident. If I got distracted and turned my head and the dog wandered through wherever was "downrange" on my imaginary battlefield, I was in trouble. Breaking any of the rules resulted in my losing my toy guns for a day. I once tried to get around that by making a finger gun to point at my brothers, and my parents took that one away too by taping my hand shut. They were that serious about it.

My dad would occasionally spring pop quizzes on me while I was playing. He'd ask me what was behind what I was pretending to shoot at. I had to be able to answer him without double-checking.

To this day I have excellent safety habits when handling guns. My parents didn't have to worry about what would happen if I found one somewhere when they weren't around. I almost certainly wouldn't touch it without good reason. If I had good reason I knew how to handle it without injuring myself or others.

It's never too young to start developing good habits, and good habits for handling dangerous objects could well save your child's life someday.

Besides, it's incredibly fun to sit down in the living room after dinner as a family and use the Nerf guns to shoot targets across the room. Hit one, you get your dart back. Miss, you don't. First one to run out of darts has to wash the dishes.

  • Interesting solution. I'm not sure it is practical for most people, but certainly sounds like a good approach if it works for you! – Joe May 31 '18 at 14:18
  • @Joe It's definitely a lot more work than just "childproofing" your house. But the thing about childproofing is that children are always smarter than adults credit them with, and you can't count on it having been done when you go someplace else. World-proofing your children is a lot more work initially, but it pays off in improved safety and less need for constant supervision in the long-run. – Perkins Jun 4 '18 at 19:33
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I think that the correct answer to this problem is entirely contingent on locale. I grew up in Alaska, where guns are so prevalent that my school actually took us to the range for a day during middle-school home-ec class and taught us gun safety with .22 rifles. In that environment, my parents took a similar stance to @Perkins' parents, viewing "gun play" with toy guns as a useful situation in which to teach me gun safety. The idea was that if they could enforce gun safety through toys and play, then they wouldn't have to worry about me finding a firearm in someone's house and hurting myself or someone else on accident, or anything like that. This worry of course would make no sense at all in a country like the UK, but is a very real concern in Alaska.

Generally speaking, I think the following overarching rules make sense:

  1. Children should never be allowed to shoot at animals (ravens, crows, cats, etc.) or other peoples' things (light posts, mail boxes, cars, etc.) with any sort of play weapons, whether they actually fire or not. This can provide an important lesson about respecting other peoples' property, as well as an opportunity to discuss the morality of why we try not to hurt animals unnecessarily. If your family hunts, you can extend this conversation to the more subtle topic of ethical hunting, including things like fair chase, ethical shooting distances, etc.
  2. Children should not be allowed to shoot at people who have not consented to be shot at. It is OK for two kids to agree to a Nerf battle and then shoot Nerf guns at one another in the back yard, but it is not OK for them to run into the front yard and shoot at passing strangers. This can lead to conversations around personal space and consent (I don't mean consent in a sexual way, just consent in general in everyday life).
  3. Toy weapons should never look, even from a distance, at all like real weapons. I say this primarily because sometimes children are shot by police or others who believe that they are brandishing actual weapons.
  4. Children should learn how to appropriately talk about weapons. Children should learn not to ever threaten anyone, not to ever bring toy weapons to school, not to discuss the possibility of bringing toy weapons to school, not to talk about shooting while at school, not to talk about explosions or bombs while in airports, etc. etc. The specific points to cover will again depend on your cultural context.

After that, decisions around the types of gun play allowed (if any), who can participate, and the rules should probably be chosen in a manner that roughly reflects the culture you live in, so that other parents do not feel offended by whatever their kids tell them about weapon related playing at your house.

One more thought about weapon-play in general: if you live in a society where such play is heavily culturally discouraged, and if your child really wants to play with (pretend) weapons, you may be able to channel that energy into something productive other than playing. Examples would include martial arts classes, joining a local recreational archery team, or even playing darts (which I believe is fairly culturally acceptable in most of the world).

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    For number 2 I'd suggest not allowing it at all until they're at least 12 and have demonstrated a clear and consistent ability to differentiate between play and reality. Get them something that doesn't look like a gun at all for shooting at other people. My brothers and I had water squirters that were shaped like dinosaurs for that. And toy catapults. The consent bit's a good addition though. As for folks in "gun free" countries, consider that tools like nailguns need to be treated with the same respect as firearms and the habits are easily transferable once developed. – Perkins Jun 4 '18 at 19:44
  • I agree about the age limit but I think there's an awkward subtlety if you live somewhere where they will be exposed to this type of play at other people's houses. Of course the whole conversation around other rules at other houses exists and different parents take different approaches to that. – Max von Hippel Jun 5 '18 at 2:37
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    Eh. We were always expected to obey the important rules regardless of what anyone else was doing or where we were and were flat out told that other parents allowing their children to misbehave was both none of our business and no excuse for doing it ourselves. Any friends visiting us had to follow our rules though or they'd be asked to leave early. One of my dad's proudest moments (so he says) was when a visiting adult uncle was goofing around with a rubber band gun and my youngest brother scowled at him and said, "we don't do that here." He was probably about six at the time. – Perkins Jun 6 '18 at 0:55

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