Tammy Worth and her husband were determined not to let their two boys, now 7 and 5 years old, play with toy guns or other pretend weapons.
"When they were little, we never got them water guns, and we'd avoid buying toy sets with guns," says Worth, 36, a journalist in Blue Springs, Mo. "We thought it would make them more violent and teach them that shooting is OK."
"Everyone has an informal causation theory that playing with guns leads to the use of guns in adulthood," says Michael Thompson, PhD, child psychologist and author of It's a Boy! Your Son's Development From Birth to Age 18. Yet, most adult men who did engage in gunplay as children don't commit violent crimes.
How Boys Play
Opinions about the impact of gunplay vary widely, but the research, according to Thompson, is clear: "There's no scientific evidence suggesting that playing war games in childhood leads to real-life aggression."
By the age of 2 or 3, clear gender preferences emerge when it comes to playtime. In general, boys lean toward aggressive play, such as fighting monsters, while girls are more inclined to engage with dolls or games that involve family. The root of these differences has been debated for ages.
"We can't tell if it's wired in or social learning," Thompson says. But the difference is strong: A recent survey found that about 60% to 80% of boys play with aggressive toys at home, including guns. About 30% of girls do.
Benefits of Play
Play has been linked to social and cognitive development. Through imaginary games, children learn how to control impulses, delay gratification, think symbolically, and view things from another's perspective. Play also allows children to act out their fears and aspirations. "As a little boy, you're not very powerful," Thompson says. "With a gun, you feel powerful and heroic."
That doesn't mean this type of play is about violence, however. According to Thompson, it's really about dominance and heroism, winning and losing, and who gets to be the good guy in the end. Sometimes "there is aggression and hurtfulness, and that must be stopped," Thompson says.
Despite the household ban, Worth's boys made a beeline for guns and swords every time they hit the toy store, so she decided to loosen the reins. "My older son has grown out of it," she says of the guns and other toy weapons. "He doesn't play with them at all anymore."
Boys and Toy Gun Tips
Thompson offers tips for parents whose boys want to play with toy guns.
Watch your words. Be cautious about criticizing boys' form of play. At 4 and 5, a boy is his play, Thompson says. "Boys think, 'If you don't like my play, you don't like me.'" As long as no one is getting hurt, allow a little roughhousing.
Play it out. Banning the content of games won't stop it, and often creates the allure of forbidden fruit. "They will eventually tire of the sameness [of their games] when it isn't an ideological struggle with the adult world," Thompson says.
Take a stand. If your boys' gunplay draws scrutiny from the neighbors, "You can say, 'I don't believe it's good for boys to have adults always interfering with or dictating their play. We don't do that to girls,'" Thompson says.