For the last several Christmases, my son has circled every plastic gun he could find in holiday toy guides; he is drawn to them the way a moth is drawn to a light in the dark. Every year I remind him that Santa knows we are not allowed to play with toy guns because guns are not toys. Santa will not bring him a toy gun. I know he is disappointed and I feel guilty for, well, sticking to my guns.
He is six and he won’t believe in Santa for much longer. This past year I imagined the shock and joy that would overtake his little body if he woke up to find one of the mega, ultra, something-or-other guns under the tree. Creating that excitement in a small window of childhood mystery and magic was almost enough to consider the purchase. Instead I searched for another acceptable item in the form of a Spider-Man web shooter. Call me a hypocrite, but my kids can play with toy weapons as long as they are not guns.
My kids are nine and six; they have toy swords, nunchucks, light sabers, wands, and ninja stars. They play pirates, spies, wizards and other games that involve carrying a “weapon” to fight bad guys. This is make-believe and fantasy play—both of which are great for kids. They use problem-solving skills, their words, and imagination more than aggression. It does get rambunctious at times, but no more so than kids wrestling or engaging in a pillow fight. I am not worried that this type of play will bloom into something more sinister.
The idea of them actually hurting someone, walking into a classroom, a movie theater, or a mall with a real version of one of these weapons is not only small but impossible in many cases.
I have yet to hear about a mass nunchuck killing event. Yes, it is still my job to teach my kids not to hurt another human no matter their choice of weapon, and playing with a toy gun does not guarantee that a child would want to use a real one for sport or against someone. But society has glorified guns in a way that has desensitized us to their power and impact. I won’t add to that by making space for toy guns.
I am fine with my kids seeing confrontation, certain types of fighting, and even being aware of violence that is beyond the basic peer to peer interactions they would have with another kid on the playground. Of course, I have limits on the intensity of violence my kids are exposed to, and I don’t believe anything good can come out of over-the-top fighting and goriness. Playing with toy guns, watching shows, or playing video games with guns is self-indulgent and insensitive. There is nothing cool about aiming and shooting at another person, whether done in play or not.
As someone who contemplated suicide with a gun and who still has moments of suicidal ideation, guns are too triggering for me. My kids are good at turning anything into a gun, though, and I monitor that too. Sticks, Lego creations, and other homemade guns are quickly shot down because the act of them pointing it at someone and taking aim, even in play, turns my stomach. I don’t like it when someone points a finger at their own head in mock shooting. I don’t even like the emojis used to suggest the same thing. Am I too sensitive? Perhaps to some, but protecting my well-being is just as important as protecting my kids. Do I care that some people think I am overreacting? Not one bit.
I acknowledge there is not a lot of research to confirm that a kid playing with a gun leads to aggressive behavior in adulthood. Some conclude that violent games can make some people more aggressive in certain situations, but that video games are not to blame for mass shootings.
But one recent study exposed kids 8-12 to three versions of Minecraft: a violent one with guns to kill monsters; a violent one with swords to kill monsters; and a nonviolent game without weapons or monsters.
After playing the video game, each group was sent to play in another room where there were two disabled handguns in a cabinet. 76% of the kids who played the violent game with guns touched the found gun. The numbers went down as the violence decreased. 57% who played the game with the swords and 44% of the kids who played the nonviolent game touched the gun. “Children exposed to violent versions of the video game were more likely to engage in the dangerous behavior of pulling the trigger at themselves or their partner than children exposed to the nonviolent version.”
I’m not a science denier, but I stand by my rule for my family. Pretending to shoot someone is not a game I will ever allow in my house. This is not just to drive home the importance of gun safety. I want them to have an appreciation of the devastation that one pull of the trigger can cause to themselves or another. Just like I don’t let my kids name-call or use inappropriate language toward another person just to be “funny,” I don’t let them play with guns just to pretend.
By the time my son’s birthday rolls around in June, he will have forgotten that there is no way in hell that he will not be getting any type of toy gun. He will ask, and I will say no. He will likely be disappointed and I will fight off a moment of guilt, but I don’t have any regrets with my decision.