Today I came across an article by science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer: “It’s Fine for Kids to Play With Pretend Guns,” which summarizes the recent research on kids and violent pretend play. In short, pretend gunplay is normal and even developmentally appropriate, helping kids learn to control their more aggressive impulses. She reports:
“In a 2013 study, researchers observed how preschoolers played by themselves with various objects and then watched these same children in their classrooms. They found that the more oral aggression the kids displayed—for example, pretending that stuffed animals bit or ate each other—the less aggressive their behavior was in the classroom. The researchers speculate that when kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions.”
She does offer the caveat that some children are just, well, aggressive, and if a kid is actually hurting other kids while they’re playing, that’s cause for concern. As is mindless, unimaginative violence, like repeatedly bashing a doll’s head over and over with no accompanying narrative.
As for putting a stop to pretend gunplay, psychologists have even warned that preventing kids from acting out these impulses might even be harmful. Wenner Moyer writes:
“Another recent paper penned by academic psychologists went so far as to argue that preventing kids from play fighting could interfere with their social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and communicative development. Although we can’t be certain that this relationship is causal—it’s possible that kids who are more socially mature simply tend to play more aggressively—one thing is clear: ‘Aggressive behavior in pretend play is different than actual aggressive behavior in real life,’ says co-author and Case Western Reserve University child psychologist Sandra Russ.”
So I can relax a little about all this pretend gunplay, and focus on the real problem—real guns. As Moyer points out, guns are the second-leading cause of death for children, ages 1 to 19, in the United States. Parents don’t need to worry about pretend guns. We need to worry about real ones.