Is pretend-shooting acceptable play for kids?
I have been shot.
I also have also been blasted. Tasered. Stun-gunned. Vanquished. Laid low by a surprise shot from a laser cannon. Sent into unconsciousness by a sleep weapon that looked an awful lot like a pillow. I can’t talk about the mind-control ray that seized control of my brains, except that BLKELEHGJADHKADSJFH. See, I can’t talk about it.
The most horrible part of all these attacks is that they were perpetrated by my very own son. My son shot me. And I let him.
It wasn’t always this way. When my sweet-faced, gentle baby morphed into toddlerhood, I noticed him aiming his fingers at me and making pshoo pshoo noises. I didn’t know where he was getting this from—none of the public television programming we permitted contained any gunplay; we had no shooting toys in the house. As the lefty pacifist I am, I did not approve. Why would I encourage violence, after all? Could this kind of pretending lead anywhere good? At the local coffee shop I watched a woman steering her son from an old Galaga arcade game, insisting that “we don’t play shooting games.” This seemed about right to me. If you’re shooting asteroids in a game, what’s next? Shooting puppies in the gutter, that’s what. No gun play, I told Henry. Guns bad. Knitting good.
But as Henry grew, his natural inclination toward play that involved shooting grew. Everything turned into a gun: a shoe, a crayon, the remote, his knitting needles. (Please note: he didn’t really knit. I made that up.) He probably would have used the dog’s tail, if the dog had let him. We began imposing arbitrary rules that did nothing but confuse the issue. Scott insisted that Henry call his imaginary weapons “blasters” and not “guns,” putting them squarely in the realm of science fiction. You did not “shoot” someone, you “blasted” them. Because that was somehow more playful. Meanwhile, I insisted that he not aim his weapons at anyone’s face, for no good reason except that it was upsetting to get shot right in the face. Look, I don’t mind getting a few hits to the thigh, but not my valuable, valuable face. And when it came to talking of killing someone, my face got all pinched and serious and I would lecture him on the preciousness of life and he would zone out until I was finished.
Still, the shooting continued, and we noticed he wasn’t alone in this. His friends were into weapons as well, and none of them appeared to be psychopaths. (Yet. ) Henry remained just as gentle in demeanor as before—that is, when he wasn’t felling us with some kind of anti-matter beam. At the playground, we parents of boys would watch them taking aim at each other with their juice boxes, and we’d ask each other, “Where do they get it from?” (I hate to be gender typing, here, but in the interest of accuracy, I must. I have seen girls engaging in shoot’-em-ups, to be sure, but they could take it or leave it; meanwhile, I have never seen a boy not shoot at someone else. I’m sure Freud would have something to say about this.) The urge to shoot seems to have emerged from them unbidden, a developmental milestone as inevitable as using the pincer grasp or jumping on one foot. So why fight it?
Because it seemed socially inappropriate? Because kids really have been known to kill each other, with real weapons, at younger and younger ages? I asked Eden, whose son is a couple of years older than Henry, what she did when Jackson shot at her. Give him a stern talking to? Ignore? Redirect? She looked at me strangely and said she clutched her chest and fell over dead. Duh. Lighten up, Alice.
After a while, we did. After all, he was clearly getting something out of this form of play, and it wasn’t about aggression. I would play a bad guy and he would shoot me down, then run over and kiss me so that I might regain consciousness and continue playing. He certainly didn’t seem like he was being worked into an aggressive lather by this kind of playacting. According to this piece, it’s not about aggression, but figuring out one’s place in the universe. “A child participating in gunplay is usually yearning to understand power in relationships. By killing the ‘bad guys,’ he can, in his mind, exert some control over his world.” Control and power: the very things a preschooler doesn’t have. When it’s you against a huge, incomprehensible world, it’s no wonder arming yourself is so alluring.
So we’ve lightened up considerably when it comes to our child trying to defeat us or his friends with any one of his many play-weapons. I still draw the line, though, on purchasing pretend guns. I don’t see the need for a anything resembling a gun to be in our house, and the last thing I want is for Henry to associate guns with toys. The danger of him mistaking a real gun for a toy is something that can keep me up nights. Unless it’s candy-colored and shoots water, I don’t want any kind of pistol at my house.Published July 25, 2008. Last updated December 8, 2010.