Boys Will Be Boys (Tips for dealing with toy guns)

Few moments are more alarming than when a sweet little four year old boy looks up at his mommy and says, “bang, bang!  You’re dead!” while wielding a fake gun fashioned out of Legos.  And yet it happens to some unsuspecting mommy every single day (I dread the day that my sweet little Liam learns the word “gun”).

While many preschool girls are drawn toward fairy tales, princesses, and playing mommy (this is where Riley currently places most of her energy), most boys of the same age seem to find their way to the superhero and “bad versus good” game play.  It doesn’t seem to matter what you expose them to in your own home, at some point Batman enters the picture.  It should also be noted that there are boys who will head to the princess castle and girls who will enter the Hall of Justice simply because it seems appealing.  Preschool is all about exploring new ideas.

The good news is that it all falls under the “age appropriate” heading for preschoolers.  Although it’s unsettling for parents, and teachers, to watch, studies do not show any link between pretend gunplay and violence later in life.  In fact, most often it’s a phase that disappears just when you start to get used to it.  **The only potential cause for concern is if gunplay is the ONLY interest your child has all day every day.

This doesn’t mean that you should just stand by quietly while your preschooler fills his day with gunplay.  Below are a few tips to help you handle the fascination with guns:


1. Avoid Overreacting: The easiest way to send your child into a secret world of gunplay and make him feel like he can’t tell you things is to immediately shut him down and set a strict “no pretend guns” policy.  A better strategy is to get into the game. Join the story and figure out the subtext.  Ask questions: Who are the bad guys?  Why are they bad?  Most often, preschoolers use gunplay to work through feelings about power, control, and keeping the world safe. Taking away the control they feel in their play can leave them feeling helpless.  Work through it with them.

2. Set Realistic Limits: Some of the jargon that accompanies gunplay can be scary to other kids.  Phrases like, “you’re dead” or “I killed you” might frighten another child who doesn’t play the same way.  They are also serious words with big consequences in the larger world around them.  It’s perfectly reasonable to set some limits.  Changing the phrasing to, “I got you” or “you’re out” still allows the feeling of control without the focus on death and killing. Due to the level of excitement with such games, time limits are important. Preschoolers don’t know when to say when.  Make believe can become overwhelming when it involves significant chasing and trying to conquer evil.  Stop the game and move into a calming activity before over-stimulation sets in.  This is not a good play activity right before bed.  Preschoolers need time to wind down and process the feelings that come up in their play. Although they are working on having some control, the themes contained in gunplay can become scary when the lights go down.  Allow plenty of time to move on before starting the bedtime routine.  **Note:  Many preschools do not allow gunplay, more often due to the potential for over-stimulation than the fear of aggression. Be prepared to explain to your child that he might have to save that game for home.

3. Focus on Pretend: Whether it’s a fairy tale or Batman and Robin, play can feel real to preschoolers when they are engaged in it.  It’s important to label gunplay as “pretend”. Instead of having your child say, “I got you Mommy”, take on the persona of the “bad guy”.  Come up with a name for your character and make it pretend.  Avoid parents, siblings, and friends as the intended targets. Play can become confusing, and difficult to process, when the players are real.  In fact, you might find a weepy child later in the day feeling bad that he “killed” his friend.  Make sure pretend characters are involved.

4. Avoid Realistic Props: There are some seriously scary looking “play” guns at Toys R Us these days.  Toys made to look exactly like real guns can blur the line between fantasy and reality. Stick to the old cowboy guns or, better yet, something that looks like it belongs in outer space.  As I used to tell concerned teachers back in my school administration days, if a boy wants to play guns he will find a twig in the grass and make that his gun.  They don’t need realistic “play” semi-automatic weapons.

5. Consider Other Kids: Not all boys like to engage in gunplay.  Some stick to cars, sports, or like to play with the girls.  If gunplay is scaring a friend on a playdate, or if that friend just isn’t interested, it is best to stop the game and have the kids come up with a game or activity that they both enjoy.  They don’t have to have all of the same interests to be friends, but they do have to find common ground when playing together.

6. Expand Pretend Play: Your son might gravitate toward constant gunplay because that’s what he knows to be fun.  Liam would really only play with his cars if Riley wasn’t around to engage him in other games, like “Princess Riley and Prince Liam”.  Play with your child to help him learn new pretend games. Open a restaurant and make him the chef.  Have a carwash.  Break out the instruments and form a rock band.  Solve a mystery together.  Sometimes kids just need new ideas to break out of a cycle.

7. Consider Exposure: Do you regularly have the news on in the background with the hope that you might secretly get caught up when the kids aren’t paying attention?  If the TV is on, they’re paying attention. Visuals of war, local violence, and other scary stories on the news can be confusing and frightening to preschoolers.  Catch up online when the kids are asleep.  Does your son have an older sibling who plays a lot of video games?  Any images of gunfights (whether they are fantasy in the form of a video game or real situations happening on the news) will have an impact on your child.  Limit your older child’s video game time to when your preschooler is not around to see it.

8. Older Kids & Video Games: Here’s the potentially good news:  A 2008 study conducted by Dr. Christopher Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M University found no strong link between violent video games and future violent behavior.  The study found that innate aggressive behavior and family exposure to violence were better predictors of future violent crime (“Violent Video Games and Aggression”, Criminal Justice and Behavior, March 2008).  **It should be noted that other studies have found increased heart rates when playing and poor sleep quality (due to continued increased heart rates) after playing violent video games.  Monitor closely.  Cause for concern:  If your older child has no (or few) social contacts, isolates himself, shows symptoms of Depression, uses drugs and/or alcohol, has been the target of a bully, and ONLY plays violent video games when not in school, you should seek an evaluation.

Rest your worried minds, mommies.  With a few limits, a heavy focus on pretend, and by getting involved in your child’s play, you can help your child work through his feelings about control, power, and safety without resorting to actual aggression.  Your preschool boy is right on target!

How do you handle gunplay in your home?


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)