Parents are more likely to give boys what we think of as masculine toys, including toy guns
Psychological research has found no link between toy weapon play and aggression
The vast majority of boys who play with toy guns will never go on to use real ones to harm someone. Also, gun violence is nearly exclusively a male problem.
Reconciling these two facts is difficult for many parents, who are unsure whether their sons’ fun play at home is in any way related to the fear they feel for their safety when their sons leave the home.
Before last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the upswell of gun control activism that followed, concerns about the potential link between toy gun play and gun violence were much easier to set aside. But now, as the culture engages in a deep reckoning with this problem, that muted response feels wrong, if not complicit.
A growing number of parents looking to act on their fear of gun violence are wondering whether, in addition to boycotting gun-friendly businesses and protesting NRA-endowed politicians, they should also do something about the ubiquity of guns in their sons’ fantasy lives.
Like many parents, Karina Moltz, a mother of two boys, ages 5 and 7, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, had hoped she could skirt the toy gun issue altogether. She had avoided exposing her sons to guns, and when the subject came up, she explained to them, simply, that she didn’t like guns because they killed people.
Her sons love toy guns. They look for ways to acquire them and seek out shooting games at arcades. And Moltz, who is active with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, doesn’t want to forbid them. Her own mother had a strict no-gun policy when she was child, leaving her well-acquainted with the way parental bans can actually amplify children’s desire for whatever it is they are being denied. So she allows some gun play, both in-person and onscreen, but accompanies it with probing conversations.
“My goal is to equip them as much as they can. In my ideal world, they wouldn’t want to play a shooting game, but (because of the conversations), they will at least recognize how it makes them feel and what they are doing in these games,” Moltz said.
Brooke Berman, mother of a 7-year-old boy in New York, also struggles with her son’s attraction to guns and has discussed the issue at length with her friends and in therapy. “There was a time when I wouldn’t let him have one, and he would make one out of anything, but now we realize there is a time and place for it,” she said.
“He knows about Parkland. He knows guns kill people. He insists that (his) is not a real gun and he isn’t a real murderer,” she said. “He is very clear that this is playing.”
According to Michael Thompson, a psychologist and co-author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” when a child says they understand the distinction between fantasy gun play and real-life gun use, believe them.
“I understand why parents get upset by these games, but it is play, and play does not lead to lethal aggression. Play … is consensual. Aggression is hurtful and produces injury in the person. Play doesn’t produce any of that,” he said.
Real vs. play
Thompson said that boys are drawn to the notion of the heroic and that such play allows them to see themselves as the guy – and, yes, for most of history, they have mostly been guys – who combats evil and saves the day. As long as this interest in violence as a problem-solving tool is limited to the fantasy realm, parents and teachers shouldn’t be concerned. In fact, researchers have found that aggressive play can actually lead to less aggressive and more prosocial behavior in real life, because it gives children a chance to act out their impulses in a safe setting.
“Worry about boys who have impulse control problems, who start to get overexcited and hit other boys over the head. But don’t treat all boys” like they have that problem, Thompson said.
If a boy turns to violence as a way to solve real-world problems or maintains a Manichean worldview when he is not playing, Thompson said, parents should seek help. But as long this behavior is confined to playtime, they shouldn’t be concerned.
“When it’s real-world conflict, you can introduce moral relativism,” Thomspon said, explaining that boys’ fantasy lives are no place for lessons on subjectivity and humanizing the other.
While psychological research has yet to find a definitive link between toy weapon play and aggression, Erica Weisgram, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and co-editor of “Gender Typing of Children’s Toys: How early play experiences impact development,” says the studies have not been thorough enough to provide a clear conclusion.
“Studies on the topic are few and far between, and there is a great need for well-controlled, longitudinal, developmental research on the topic that takes into consideration the gender, ethnicity, culture and other characteristics of the children being studied,” she said. “These studies are difficult to do because they are expensive, labor-intensive and time-intensive but are very much needed.”
For example, the fact that there is no correlation between video games and gun violence in other countries might not be relevant in the United States, where gun ownership is far more common than anywhere else in the world. Americans own nearly half of the civilian-owned guns worldwide, which makes the possibility of moving from fantasy gun use to real gun use much easier than it is elsewhere.
What’s the appeal?
Weisgram says it’s probably a mix of biological and cultural factors that draw boys to guns. There’s evidence that male hormones are associated with what we think of masculine play, though no study has linked boys directly to toy weapons. There is also evidence that parents are more likely to give boys what we think of as masculine toys, including toy guns, and that children, once aware of gender difference, are more likely to choose toys that are designated for their gender.
If the past is an indication, there will always be some kids – boys and perhaps, one day, more Wonder Woman-inspired girls – who enjoy playing with toy guns. If and when they do, parents might consider responding by first asking them why.
When I asked this question, one 12-year-old boy in Atlanta said that his interest in guns stems from his interest in history.
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“Me and my brother love history, but you can’t have history without war. We know the basics of what type of guns were around during (World War I)” and “built a trench in the backyard.” He said he enjoys playing with Nerf guns but has no interest in BB guns. “One is playful, and the other is menacing,” he said.
A 7-year-old boy in New York said he liked guns because “they’re cool. They’re cool to play with. They’re cool to draw.”
And a 5-year-old boy in Oakland, California, said that although he prefers ninja games to shooting games, he understands why kids like both. “It gives you a chance to run around a lot. And it’s really fun to run around a lot. Sometimes, you can even do cartwheel or a flip.”
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Weisgram said there was no link between toy weapon play aggression. It also incorrectly identified her as the co-author of “Gender Typing of Children’s Toys.” She is the co-editor.