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Is pretend-shooting acceptable play for kids?

By Alice Bradley

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.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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Lisa T.
Guest
Lisa T.

I knew we were done for when my son started shooting at me with his toast over the breakfast table. My fight against guns was useless… we compromised by making him call them “shooters”. I’m sure Freud would say that made all the difference in his psyche…

Liz C
Guest

Boy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Parents have been agonizing over this ever since I can remember, and I’m OLD. And the answer is still the same; pretty much what you said. It’s play.
But every generation of moms agonizes over it all over again. That’s pretty much the way the parenting thing works. 🙂

Cobwebs
Guest

Dave Barry wrote once that you could take male babies, drop them on a desert island with no contact with civilization, and they would eventually make pretend guns out of driftwood. It’s something in the makeup. I think the answer is probably to make sure that the child understands the difference between “real” and “play,” and–crucially–understands that real guns are NOT toys. My dad kept guns in the house when my sister and I were growing up, and instead of forbidding us to have anything to do with them, he instead taught us to handle them safely. By not making… Read more »

SuburbanCorrespondent
Guest

Boys and girls are indeed hardwired differently, as I discussed in this post a few months ago. Parents today seem to enjoy working themselves up over things they can do nothing about (I blame having grown up with “Free To Be You And Me” as a bedtime story as the culprit here), while not paying enough attention to things that they can and should control. It is normal for boys to turn anything they can get their hands on into a gun (or, as you Freudians will have it, a penile extension), while it is also normal for a girl… Read more »

SuburbanCorrespondent
Guest

Whoops – that last comment didn’t pick up my hyperlink. I’ve talked about this same subject here:
http://suburbancorrespondent.blogspot.com/2008/03/fundamental-things-apply.html

Mandee
Guest

My nephew returned from a two week visit with his father (gah, it is hard to call that person his father) and older cousins and immediately began shooting us. Add to all of the above listed dilemmas the fact that his father is known to own guns. And to keep a gun with him in the car–under the seat. Not locked in any sort of safe box somewhere (he also thought my nephew’s nursery was a good place for a gun. One of many reasons we have tried to maintain supervised visitation). I’m all for role play, but my nephew’s… Read more »

clarabella
Guest
clarabella

If we’re going to drop Freud, can we talk about Jung, because I think his philosophies are more at work here. How can a child who has not (that we know of) been exposed to gun play initiate “gun play”? Collective subconscious anyone? Strange if you want my point of view. I was raised in a house where we didn’t know anything about guns, but we pretended too, and who knows where we got it. My son is 15 months old, and he has no (and will not have any) exposure to gun culture, but if he starts pointing his… Read more »

Holly
Guest
Holly

My son also turns everything into guns. Sticks, graham crackers, the pins from his outdoor bowling set (which have never actually been used for bowling). As an only child who grew up on a street full of girls, I found it hard to take-and sometimes still do. A friend of mine once read that this play is so natural for boys, that it can actually make them feel bad about themselves if you punish them for it. They feel that if doing it is bad then they must be bad because the urge to play this way is so strong.… Read more »

Dana
Guest

Kids learn about life through play. Our kids have play guns and they “shoot” with them – so long as they’re the good guys bringing about an end to evil, blah, blah. There must be a positive outcome. However, in my house (we are NRA members and I’ve been around firearms since childhood) we do not point pretend firearms in someone’s face and we’ve educated our kids on firearm safety. We teach them that guns do not shoot people – other people do. What’s the point of teaching gun safety if we don’t also teach our children the value of… Read more »

Meagan Francis
Guest

My oldest son, who’s going on 11 now, shocked me when he picked up a stick at the age of 11 months, pointed it at a passerby, and made that “pshoo!” noise. He hadn’t been exposed to gun violence on TV or video games…in fact, I wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a gun in use in any medium. I wondered if maybe he meant for the stick to be a magic wand that was supposed to transport the blastee into a mystical portal or something…but that seemed a little too sophisticated for his toddler mind. It became pretty clear in… Read more »

feefifoto
Guest

I grew up in a family of three girls with a father whose main weapon was a golf club. We played superhero, but it never prepared me for having a boy who made guns out of q-tips, pop tarts and wire twisties. I recited “We don’t shoot; we don’t hit” like a mantra and it never had any effect; eventually I switched my approach to pointing out that pretend was pretend but that didn’t make it okay in real life. Funny thing — my son’s 11 now and it’s been a while since we’ve seen any “shooters” or “blasters” or… Read more »

Anne May
Guest

Yeah, totally a boy thing. It’s genetic. Comes with the X chromosome – after watching my then-3-year-old cousin with no knowledge of guns whatsoever turn a granola bar into a weapon of destruction.

Abbie
Guest

I work with a little boy whose preschool lets kids pretend to have guns, so long as they don’t shoot at anyone who doesn’t have a “weapon” and don’t try to scare the other kids.
This seems to work well- the kids who are fascinated by this stuff are able to “play it out,” while still understanding that you can’t use even pretend weapons to hurt innocent people.

Bethany Zabrosky
Guest

We follow the rules that we don’t shoot people. (And no toy guns-we have real ones thst are well loked up.) All bad guys must be pretend with everyone on the same team. That team usually consists of a Luke Skywalker, a Transformer and Cinderella with Snow White’s shoes running after an invisible Darth Vader. It works for us. And when the gun/shooting play seems to be ALL they are playing, all “guns” are put away and we pull out the play doh, crayons and paint.

Megan
Guest
Megan

I have a good friend who pointed out to me that so many people worry about what gun play will turn our sons into as adults, but noone ever sees a small girl drop her doll on its head and go off to play something else and thinks she will grow up to be a bad mother.
Let them play I say.

theclevermom
Guest

I wrote about a similar thing on my blog recently. I read a great article about “aggressive play” in boys and it’s purpose in guiding those boys into their kinder, gentler, more compassionate future selves. My comments, with a link to the article are here: http://theclevermom.com/?p=41

Janice (5 Minutes for Mom)
Guest

We went through the same evolution in our house too. At first, I insisted, “no guns.” I wasn’t even going to have water guns in my house. We were not going to encourage violence and especially guns in our home. No siree. I would have had Jackson signed up for a knitting class along with Henry if the thought had occurred to me. Boys didn’t have to be violent. I would provide healthier ways for my son to play and express himself. Then I grew up, as we mothers must do when our babies become boys. Since I am not… Read more »

Wa
Guest

When I was a boy, I drew very elaborate drawings of armies blasting each other, until the whole page was black with penciled smoke. My parents were very concerned. And they should have been. I grew up to be a writer.
You, as a parent, still have time to preempt this.

Angel Funk
Guest

I needed to read this! Same thing at our house with my 3 year old son. What a relief to laugh about it instead of freaking out.

Shannon
Guest

My sister and fellow peacenik was anti-television with her son and most certainly did not expose him to anything having to do with guns. He did not attend daycare and was watched by a sweet elderly couple who were well informed of my sister’s preferences. Still, around the age of 2 he started making things into guns and shooting them. She gave long lectures, no, no, no guns, whole route. She finally gave up when he bent his cousin’s barbie over one day and shot her with it. Me, I’ve been saved this particular dilemma as I have girls, but… Read more »

Sue
Guest

If I give my son a spoon, he will pretend it’s a gun. If I give my daughter a spoon, she’ll pretend it’s a baby.
I used to think gender specific play was a learned thing, but now? Not so much.

Brenda
Guest
Brenda

I have a two year old who also likes guns, Spiderman and “shooting bad guys”. My parents had a strict no gun household (not even water guns), but my husband is a little more tolerant on the issue, and heaven knows you have to be on the same page. So when Grey shoots me, I don’t react and I tell him I don’t like guns. When Grey shoots his daddy, play ensues. Hopefully he’ll somehow figure out that guns aren’t perfectly ok (from my response), while still scratching that little-boy shooting itch. (His main “gun” is a pretend Black and… Read more »

A
Guest
A

My parents were never one way or the other about toy guns, probably because, as you mentioned, I am a girl. My fascination with weapons pretty much revolved around the Power Rangers, and even then it was all about karate chops and giant machinery crashing down itty bitty cardboard cities. My little brothers, on the other hand, have a fascination with guns also. However, both of them (aged 12 and 5) know that real guns are for police men and they are not for little boys, and they are definietly not toys. My aunt does not encourage any gun play.… Read more »

BOSSY
Guest

Bossy’s son was never allowed to watch violent things, including Disney movies. And yet one day he reached for a straggly stick and held it straight out in front of him and said, “Pshht pshht” and took aim at the family.
It’s in the DNA, handed down from Cave Men and stuff.

Jack
Guest
Jack

DNA from cavemen… you do realize cavemen didnt have guns, right?

amy
Guest

My plans for making sure my son understands real guns are not toys? Take him to the range and enroll him in a kid’s gun safety class when he starts elementary school. They are fairly common down here in Texas. Kids that grow up knowing how real guns work tend to not accidentally shoot each other. Knowledge is power.

ozma
Guest

My daughter is a girl. I did once have someone try to insist that girls will not use random objects as pretend weapons but I’m afraid that is not so in her case. I admit she is more drawn to swords, knives and stabbing then guns but if there was a box of toys with a toy gun in it that would absolutely be the thing she’d go for. She takes after her mama. As a child, I asked for a BB gun every year for Christmas for about 6 or so years. It may have been longer. I had… Read more »

Amy J
Guest
Amy J

This was a hard (and emotional) issue to tackle for my husband and me. We settled on the same commonsense approach you did.
The preschool my almost-5 y.o. son attends is more strict and does not allow ANY gun play, drawing of weapons, discussion of weapons, etc. My son has become very skilled at devising superheros who only KIND OF have a weapon: Glow Stick Man and Bone Man are two of my recent favorites.

Fairly Odd Mother
Guest

I find this interesting mostly because my son does NOT turn everything into a gun. He is almost 4 and while he can’t get his hand onto a water gun fast enough, he doesn’t pick up sticks or blocks or his fingers and ‘shoot’ anything. Believe me, I don’t take this as a sign of anything other than he’s been around less boys his own age (he has two older sisters and doesn’t attend day care or preschool). If/when he does initiate ‘gun play’, I’ll have some rules (no face; don’t try to ‘kill’ anyone) but won’t agonize too much… Read more »

Little Read Hen
Guest

One of the reasons I am so relieved to have a girl…of course, we do have the stroller wars. (She wants one for her dolls, Mama says no…play with blocks.) Sigh.

miep
Guest
miep

well, if i think about anatomy, it would make sense to me that a young human being equipped with something that they are learning to aim and shoot successfully (into the potty, we hope and pray!) would be drawn to opportunities to play out that pointing and shooting in a slightly more socially acceptable way. we try not to pee on one another, but we can shoot at bad guys in our play…

rachel beto
Guest

I know! I have no idea where my son learned to do such things as stick noodles on the ends of his fingers then jab me yelling, “FIGHT! FIGHT!” There’s me, with noodles on my fingers, yelling back, “HUG! LOVE!” But I do remember reading an article that explained pretend war/guns are not such a bad thing–they are as important in boys’ development as playing house is in girls’.

anna w
Guest

All this hoopla about guns seems to beg the question – what on earth did little boys do before guns were invented? I imagine they had pretend sword-fights (Which, while just as lethal, seem so much cuter than gun-fights somehow. Maybe because sword-play is interactive, while a gun is not. Or maybe that’s just because I haven’t heard horror stories of schools getting terrorized by folks waving swords…Anyhow.) This leads to the next question – before guns were invented did moms obsess over their son’s imaginary swordplay? You have to admit, it does make one wonder… I don’t have any… Read more »

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

Good luck. I once got ‘shot’ by my then-3-year old son with his modified triangle cut peanut butter and jelly sandwich .

Butterfly Mama
Guest

We are going through this right now. I’m laughing because Duh. fall over and play dead has never occurred to me. We are still doing the “don’t point your fingers at my face” thing. I guess maybe tomorrow we’ll play cops and robbers! Yeah, I’ve got to lighten up too.

Ellen
Guest
Ellen

We weren’t going to have toy guns until I saw my son running with a stick, going “pow, pow”. I figured he’d be safer running with a plastic gun. You know what your mom always said: “don’t run with that stick, you’ll fall and put your eye out”

Jenny
Guest
Jenny

I wonder what little kids played before the invention of the gun.

Anne
Guest

Jenny, that’s where the turning sticks into guns came from – sticks were there first! It’s a whole chicken/egg thing.

Karin
Guest

LMAO….You described my life to a T…..Seriously. While we were pregnant, my best frend and I talked endlessly (and quite smugly I might add) about how we would never let a gun or gun like object darken our doorway……….fast forward 7 years…and we say “screw it. give ’em their guns.” Short of handing them a loaded pistol, I don’t care anymore. It’s futile to try to stop the enivitable…..shooting things.

Katie
Guest
Katie

Shooting pretend guns (guns made with hands, etc) isn’t any different than playing with pretend swords or any other weapon for that matter. It is make believe, because it hardly resembles the object. However, realistic looking fake guns are a terrible thing, because guns ARE NOT toys, and toy guns send the wrong message. If you want your kids to respect guns, keep them away from the fake ones with fake bullets. Real guns have real bullets that really hurt. It’s ok to teach your kids to shoot guns, because you will probably want them to be safe while they’re… Read more »

ModernGearTV
Guest

This is just amazing to me – because I thought my nephew was the only small boy who did this. I am not a Mom yet so I don’t have personal, daily experience with it but it always shocked me how he’d “blast” me and others around and it wouldn’t faze my sister. I guess that’s because all of his peers do it too, and seems to be a somewhat normal, current, rite of passage. What a sign of the times. What did caveboys do?

carrien (she laughs at the days)
Guest

I suspect that before guns were invented boys pretended to shoot each other with bows and arrows, and blow guns and dart guns. I wonder if it hearkens back to a hunter instinct? I used to have quite smug rules about guns myself. And MY dad’s family are from strong pacifist backgrounds. And then we let the Boy play at shooting things, but he wasn’t allowed to point them at people or I took the gun like object away. I too was afraid of what would happen if he got his hands on a real gun. And then other little… Read more »

Jenni/mom2nji
Guest

When I was pregnant I also had the lofty plan to ban all types of gun play. Now, three boys later, I have learned there is no fighting it. All three will make a gun out of anything and run through the house squealing as they shoot each other. I love it when mothers of girls, or even worse people w/o kids say the very same things I did before, it just cracks me up

Upset.
Guest
Upset.

My young son (6) has been doing this “fake shooting” thing for a while now.. but now that he’s started 1st grade the school has a ZERO tolerance policy when it comes to these things. He just got written up and if it continues they could kick him out.. for this exact behavior. He is bad at listening (his hearing is physically fine) so when they tell him to stop, he doesn’t. We are removing all this type of stimulation from his life as it was in the form of kid zombie games on a tablet, cell phone and non… Read more »