My child wants to play with toy guns. Should I let him?

Many preschoolers – especially boys – still want to play with toy guns despite all the frightening news about gun violence. They enjoy squirt guns, space guns, cap guns, and rifles, and they’re impressed with how toy guns can shoot water, flash, and make loud noises. If a toy gun isn’t available, a child will make one out of wood, a stick, a straw, even paper. And if he can’t make one, he’ll shoot with his thumb and finger.

A child is attracted to toy guns because they give him a sense of power and control. In his everyday life, he is relatively helpless, but when he holds a toy gun (which looks real to him), he feels he can protect himself while telling other children what to do: “Stand over there and put your hands up.” Children like to play roles: firefighter, mother, father, nurse, doctor, policeman, cowboy, bad guy. Children see armed guards at airports, hear news about fighting and terrorism, see shooting all the time on television and in computer games, and they act out what they see. The good and bad guys have guns, and when the good guy shoots and wins, he’s a hero.

There are parents who are comfortable letting their children play with toy guns. Some even encourage it. Many parents have mixed feelings. They don’t like gun play, since they know the danger and violence associated with real guns, and they want their children to play less aggressively. But even many of these parents eventually give up and let their children use toy guns. The parents find that, despite their arguments and their efforts to involve their child in other activities, he may still want to play with toy guns, and if he doesn’t have one, he’ll improvise one.

You may decide not to let your child use toy guns, or to use them only in a limited way. If toy gun use in the house bothers you, tell him to go outdoors. Tell him not to shoot at people who don’t agree to play and not to aim a toy gun in someone’s face. Gun play may be difficult for you to watch, since it imitates a frightening part of life. Yet, gun play doesn’t seem to encourage general aggressiveness. In fact, it can be an outlet for naturally aggressive children.

As long as your child plays with toy guns in moderation, there’s no harm in the activity. He’ll probably stay interested in these as he goes through his elementary years. If you see gun play becoming your child’s dominant activity, you need to try to figure out why. Does he feel unaccepted at home? Does he feel verbally or physically under attack at home or at school? A child who engages in excessive toy gun play may feel powerless or rejected. Pay more attention to him at home and try distracting him from toy guns by introducing him to alternative activities and organized games.

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