What to Do When Kids Play With Toy Guns

toyguns
Image via Katie Hurley

Decades ago, kids played with very fake looking “cowboy” guns without even a second glance from a neighbor.  Kids engaged in imaginary play and worked through a natural curiosity as they played.

These days, the toys guns often look very real (machine gun squirt guns?) and the nature of the play has changed.  Kids are playing out things seen in video games, movies, and even the nightly news.

If childhood doesn’t seem as carefree as it once was, part of that has to be attributed to parental anxiety.

We can’t ignore the fact that society has changed over time.  In light of all of the school shootings during the past fifteen years, the landscape of fear has changed in this country. 

While some parents are fine with toy gunplay, others are not.  Striking a balance is important.

What to do when kids play with toy guns:

kid with gun
Image via Flickr/ Paul Keller

Observe.

There is a significant difference between playing good versus evil, or cops and robbers, and playing kill someone out of anger or hatred.  More often than not, play with toy guns is just play.  Kids play out all sorts of themes in imaginary play and play containing toy guns doesn’t necessarily raise red flags. 

Engage with your children when they invite you to play, and simply observe them when they don’t.  In taking an interest in their play, you will have a better understanding of the nature of the play.  Kids often work out feelings of anger and frustration through their play.  Play is a healthy outlet for kids to work through difficult emotions. 

{ MORE: What To Do When You Just Can't Set Your Crying Baby Down }

wooden-toy-gun
Image via Flickr/ woodleywonderworks

Talk about it.

Believe it or not, kids love to talk about their play.  Take the time to ask your kids about their imaginary play.  Ask them to describe the characters, setting, and plot.  Share stories about your own imaginary play as a child. 

When you take the time to meet your children at their level and ask them to share their own realities, you learn a lot about how they’re feeling, what makes them feel the way they feel, and how they cope with difficult emotions.

playground
Image via Flickr/ Maarten Dirkse

Keep the toy guns at home.

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Some families don’t allow gunplay, and that’s not for you to judge or criticize.  Many kids fear guns for a variety of reasons, and you can never truly know what another family has been through until you’ve walked in their shoes.

If your kids gravitate toward toy guns and you allow gunplay in your home, make it an activity that stays at home.  There’s no reason to drag a bag of toy guns to the local park.  There are plenty of other things to play.  Sometimes having a certain game that is only played at home is appealing to children. 

{ MORE: Do You Let Your Kids Wear What They Want to Wear? }

Be honest with your children when it comes to making that rule.  Talk about rules that exist in various places, such as school, the playground, and friend’s houses.  Rules are different in different places, and that’s important to understand.

toy gun
Image via Flickr/ noisemedia

Set boundaries.

When toy guns look very similar to actual guns, the lines are easily blurred.  It can be confusing and some kids do become over-stimulated when engaged in high-energy play that also contains confusing messages.  Guns can kill and that’s bad, but playing with toy guns that look real isn’t … even if there is pretend killing involved.  You can see where it might be difficult to process.

Set some boundaries.  Purchase toys guns that actually look like toys to avoid the shades of gray on that front.  Remember, a kid can make a stick into a toy gun.  You don’t need the real thing to work through the play scenario.  Consider setting a few rules about the language kids can use when engaged in this type of play and how they can use the toy guns.

If kids become upset or over-stimulated, take a break from the play and help them process what they’re playing.  Talk about the difference between fantasy and reality.

child
Image via Flickr/ Leonid Mamchenkov

Talk to other parents.

The parents of your child’s best friend might not care at all about gunplay, but they also might care a lot.  You don’t want to have a difference in parenting style come between a friendship.  Be honest when other kids come over to play.  If a parent feels uncomfortable, talk to your child about other themes to play or activities to do during a play date.

{ MORE: Utah Becomes the First in the Nation to Legalize Free-Range Parenting }

What’s right for your child might not be right for another, and it’s important to respect individual differences. 

How do you feel about your child and gunplay?

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What to Do When Kids Play With Toy Guns

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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