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Are Toy Guns Bad for Children?

Parul Solanki
Considering the exposure that our children have to violence, it is natural for parents to worry about their kids' safety and well-being. One such debate that haunts many parents is whether or not to provide children with toy guns. So, are toys guns bad for children? In this story, we try to find the answer to the question.
It's not just parents. The 'toy gun' hysteria is everywhere. A 5-year-old kindergarten student in Maryland was suspended for 10 days for bringing a cowboy-style cap gun to school.
When I see my two-year-old dressed in a pirate dress, running around the house with a toy gun, screaming "bang bang", I flinch. Many parents who may have been "blasted", "tasered", or "stun-gunned" by their own children using toys guns, can understand my feelings. 
It is a reaction that most parents would have, considering the spate of violence in Scarborough, Toronto and Aurora, Colorado. Most parents I know have an inherent fear of exposing their child and young minds to violence and gun culture.
But are these fears valid? Does running around with a candy-colored toy gun with multiple stickers on it, turn a child into a gun-totting shooter later in life?

As children, we all remember playing cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians with our friends. Nobody told us that the toy gun was an appropriate toy for a child.
But the world today has changed, with children being exposed to more and more instances of violence and tragedy. With gun crime on the rise, it is obvious for parents to be concerned about the impact of toy guns and whether they are bad for children.
Before we can understand whether they are good or bad, let us try to see why they attract children in the first place.

Why Do Children Love Toy Guns?

This is a question that I am sure many parents ask themselves. After all, what can be so fascinating about gunplay that lures so many kids? Toy guns have been around for decades, and kids love playing "good guy and bad guy" games with it. 
In general, by the age of 2 to 3 yrs, the boys start preferring aggressive play, while girls tend to play with dolls and other "family games." Of course, this general observation may not apply to many children. Role-play, whether it is with kitchen set and dolls or with guns and swords, is considered extremely important for social and cognitive development.
It teaches children to think symbolically, control impulses, and see things from the perspective of others.
  • When children play with guns, they are not necessarily being aggressive or trying to kill someone. More often, they would be playing the part of the rescuer or hero who "protects" the ones in need from the "bad people."
  • When children engage in warplay or gunplay, they are essentially playing out age-old themes of good and evil, or power and protection. For a child, it is with play that they learn to explore different concepts. In this case, they learn the fundamentals of morality or what is right and wrong.
  • The scenarios that children enact during play make them feel powerful and strong.
  • Role-play also helps in alleviating some of the insecurities that are common in the early years.
Pretend play is related with the development of feelings of empathy. When the child pretends to be a police officer, he is trying out different roles. In short, he is learning the concepts of empathy.

Are Toys Guns Good or Bad?

Recently, a public elementary school in California came up with a toy gun exchange program, where kids were encouraged to swap their toy guns for a chance to win a bicycle. The reasoning for this, as explained by the principal, was that gunplay desensitizes kids to violence.
Research, however, has found no evidence of the fact that playing with toy guns can lead to violence. Of course, extreme behavior is not acceptable, but totally banning toy guns is often not advisable.
Many parents have found that keeping a child away from toy guns does not stop him/her from converting other props (this can include just about everything―sticks, fingers, and even your poor cat's tail) into guns. Restricting toy guns does not really mean they will never try to "shoot" someone else.
On the contrary, when parents tell them something is "bad", they get even more curious about the toy. It almost becomes like the "forbidden fruit scenario" for the child.
So, what do parents do? Well, instead of labeling an inanimate thing as good or bad, it is advisable to talk to your child and set some ground rules. Here are some tips on how you can handle the unavoidable 'toy gun' play at your home.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Instead of reprimanding your child and saying that guns are dangerous, talk to your child. Since children's understanding of guns is different from adults, they associate guns not with killing or death, but with power and fantasy.
  • Criticizing a child's play often leads to resentment.
Censoring a child's play is not the solution for violence in the world. If toy guns could instill violence, then imagine the countless number of people who would turn into murderers and killers. It is important for parents to understand the meaning that children infer from those play experiences and talk to them about it.