This question, so commonly asked by concerned parents, has understandably gotten even more significant, given the multiple mass shooting tragedies of last year and the national conversation that has ensued.
It’s also been a central topic in my parenting classes, as families strive to understand their children’s timeless interest in “good guys” versus “bad guys”, determine what is developmentally appropriate and normal, and reflect upon their individual family values.
I remember when I took the boys to Disneyland a few months ago and saw firsthand this utter fascination with weaponry. Whether it was the mini Luke Skywalkers and Darth Vaders sparring with light sabers near Space Mountain, or the Captain Hook/ Jack Sparrows dueling with pistols and swords in the Pirates of the Caribbean store, I saw children (mostly boys) of all sizes delighting in any type of power weapon they could get their hands on. And this fascination seemed to transcend all ethnic, cultural and even generational barriers when I saw many Dads, Uncles, and even Grandpas joining in!
I know the first time I saw Conor, age 4, fashioning a gun out of a banana and yelling, “Pow, pow, you’re dead Mama!” I immediately had visions of a violent future and wondered where I had gone wrong!
Yet the first issue to remember is that a four-year old saying “Pow you’re dead” is not the same as an adult saying it. A four year-old has a preschool level understanding of what a gun or killing is (often when I asked Conor about the meaning of “kill” I got answers like, “you’re asleep, you’re a skeleton or you go away for a long time”). So it’s important to remember not to put an adult level of understanding of guns— that shooting people means they want to be violent and hurt people–on young children’s play.
In their book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, Laura Davis and Janis Keyser outline a number of reasons, both developmental and societal, that make this type of play so common in young boys. One of the primary reasons is the need to gain power. As children grow from toddlers into the preschool/school age years, their awareness of the world around them becomes bigger, but so does their realization of how little they control or understand it. So, as Janis and Laura state in the book, two of the underlying questions children often ask during gun play are, “How can I have power in this world?” and “How can I make things happen?”
That’s why this is also a common time to see other types of power research including physical aggression and exclusionary play emerging. Children at this age are also beginning to understand the power of language, so this is also a time where body and poop words, and sometimes even name calling and swearing surface.
Other reasons the book gives for gun play include trying to learn about our society’s deep interest in guns, trying to understand death (which is another awareness that becomes stronger at this age) and also seeing the cause and effect that gun play has on adults.
Of course, pre-teen and teenagers also have the need to feel powerful, and also have the added social need of impressing their peers. A great reference article from Family.com, describes the developmental needs of boys at this age, and what to observe in order to determine if their gun play (both with toy weapons and video games) is normal and when to be concerned: (http://family.go.com/parenting/pkg-tween/article-791794-war-games-and-preteen-boys/).
Overall, knowing the reasons behind gun play and putting it in a developmental perspective is a great start to feeling like you are not raising a violent child. And deciding how to handle it, gives you the opportunity to reflect upon your family vision and think about the values you want to teach your children during those moments.
For example, one of the fundamental values in our family are the ideas of compassion and empathy. This meant that in addition to trying to understand my children’s point of view (like why power play was so important) I also wanted them to hear my feelings around it. So to strike the balance, I began saying, “I can see you want to shoot, but I don’t like being shot. If you both want to play with each other, make sure that shooting is okay with both of you.” I also knew I didn’t want real looking guns in the house. A reallooking gun would always only be a gun, while a Lego or branch that was a gun one minute, could also be something else another. This rule about no real-looking guns also gave me the opportunity to talk with the boys about how we feel about guns and their impact in the world.
So next time your sweet, loving son (or daughter) raises their weapon of choice at you, don’t panic! Remember that it is normal and empowering for them and also another opportunity to clarify and teach the values that are most important to you and your family.