Why do kids insist on playing “guns” and “war”?
Fair warning: It happens. Whatever your personal views on guns, whether or not you played cowboys as a kid, and even if you’ve gone so far as to keep squirt guns out of your toy box, there just might come a day when…
Your preschooler or early-elementary-aged kid wields a stick as a sword. Or builds a rifle out of LEGOs. Or chews her cheese sandwich into an impressive pistol. Or starts making those play-shooting sounds with the Florida puzzle piece, an upside-down Barbie doll’s splayed legs, or just a pointed finger for a weapon. (I’ve personally witnessed all of the above.)
Most younger kids (usually boys but not always) are drawn to mock-fighting and pretend play with weapons. And especially in an age of terrorism and Sandy Hook, we parents feel a little nervous about how to deal.
So it’s useful to know where this impulse comes from developmentally when figuring out what to do about it.
WHY it happens:
All kinds of play are how kids practice social skills and work through their emotions, their impulses, and things they hear about. During the preschool years, especially, pretend play dominates because fantasy is within their power—and safer than reality.
Fighting and beating “bad guys” give small, semi-helpless kids a gratifying sense of mastery. Through war play or cops-and-robbers play, they can also say and do aggressive things that they already know aren’t things they’d do in real life (or that Mom and Dad would tolerate). Play is a way to safely work out wild urges and learn to control them.
Conflict play also involves a surprising amount of sophisticated interaction with other kids: reading one another’s expressions and body language, working together, and fine-tuning their sense of right and wrong. Research shows that rough-and-tumble play is how both boys and girls not only learn social cues but discover their physical strengths and limits.
There’s no evidence that kids drawn to violent play will grow up violent.
- Let this kind of play run its course. Clamping down on it completely makes kids feel like they’re doing something wrong, when it’s actually developmentally normal and beneficial. That’s confusing. Some research also shows that bans make violent play last longer.
- Remember that it’s WE who see it as violence. They see it as play. If you’re vehemently against this kind of play, it’s your right as a parent not to buy toy weapons. But if your child bites his cheese sandwich into a rifle shape and calls it a gun, you won’t do his imagination any favors by correcting him.
- Offer some basic safety rules: No pointing weapons at people’s faces. No running with sticks. No toy guns (if you have them) go to preschool.
- Avoid over-feeding your kid with pop-culture storylines about violence. An interest in guns doesn’t mean your son needs violent video games meant for older audiences, or age-inappropriate movies. Let him make up his own good-versus-evil story lines.
- Try channeling some of the pretend violence into other kinds of pretend play that make kids feel big and strong. Superhero costumes and dressing like sports heroes or firefighters are also big with preschoolers for similar reasons and satisfy similar impulses.
- Provide other kinds of physical play outlets too. Some kids happily move past violent play into energetic outlets like ball play, cycling, sports.
- Step in only when the play turns truly dangerous or wrong. Actual violence (like hitting or destroying things, throwing rocks at people or animals, or thrusting sticks at others) is never okay.
Adding to the angst is that feelings run really HOT on this topic. It can feel like war out there when you start talking to other moms and dads about it. If the parents of your kids’ friends are like-minded, it’s easier to let this developmental phase run and then burn out. If not, you’ll wind up needing to either agree to disagree on this one or plan play around other activities. (Even then, your kids still might gnaw those snacks into pistols.)
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.