Toy guns are off-limits for some families. Here's how to explain it to kids.
Experts explain how parents can set boundaries in their home, and at playdates with friends.
“Here,” said a mom friend said last summer as she reached into her bag of pool toys and handed my 2-year-old son a small water gun.
My stomach dropped. I didn’t know how to react. I’d always known that I didn’t want my kids to play with toy guns, but I didn’t know I would be faced with this type of moment so soon. My kids were just 3 and 2. They’d spent most of their lives isolated because of COVID. They didn’t even know what a gun was.
When my son reached for the plastic pistol-shaped toy and intuitively pulled the trigger to squirt water at me, I was shocked and angry. I should have been prepared for this moment. I should have known how to say no, to explain to the other mom that we don’t play with toy guns in a way that wouldn’t make her feel bad.
“The research on aggressive play in kids would tell us that they actually do need opportunities to practice aggression through play, but that does not mean it needs to happen through [toy] guns,” Tori Cordiano, a clinical child psychologist who has spoken about how to talk to kids about gun violence, tells Yahoo Life.
Doris Bergen, a distinguished professor emerita in educational psychology from Miami University, agrees. “I think a parent has the right to make any decision they want to about it as long as they explain it,” she says.
Cordiano says younger kids, such as a 3-year-old, don’t need a ton of explanation. But she encourages parents to add a little more context as they get older, around age 6 or 7. “One thing parents can say is that real guns hurt people, and we don’t play with them in our house. We don’t like to play in ways that act like we are hurting people.” Cordiano adds that most children’s pretend play peaks around age 8 before it begins to taper off, so she thinks most children will outgrow that type of aggressive play before a super in-depth conversation about guns is needed.
“I totally understand why parents want their kids to not play with toy guns; I get that in this climate that we live in that it’s scary because guns have consequences,” Tara Ballentine — the founder of Bright Littles, resources to help parents have difficult conversations with their kids, and a mom of a 6-year-old daughter tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t want to shame someone into what’s right or wrong, but I think it’s really important you make a decision that is best for you and what’s best for your home and realize that although parents can stop their kids from playing with guns at home, they don’t always know what situations there child will be in outside of the home like a playdate or at the park or on TV.”
That is the challenge most parents face. What do you do when another mom offers your child a water gun, or your child goes to a playdate at a home with Nerf guns?
“I think if your child is going to spend time with another family, you as a parent need to be comfortable,” Cordiano tells Yahoo Life. She suggests parents have a script they use before play dates or sleepovers. This script should include asking other parents if they have guns in their home and how they’re stored. It can also include whether or not they let their kids play with toy guns. “If you [still] think it’s going to be a problem, but it’s your child's favorite friend, you might think of other ways they can get together, like at a playground.”
Telling your kid they can’t play with toy guns may make them feel left out if they have friends who do. Cordiano wants parents to empathize with their kids and say something like “it’s hard when other families do things we don’t do, but every family has their own rules.” However, even when acknowledging how difficult feeling left out can be, she encourages parents to stay consistent and firm because it can help kids accept the limit.
If a child does play with a toy gun at someone else’s house, Cordiano encourages parents to follow up after the playdate and ask questions: How is a Nerf gun different than a real gun? What would you do if you saw a real gun? While older kids may roll their eyes or resist these types of questions, Cordiano believes that parents still need to have the conversation.
Another challenge parents may face is that action figures and other toys may come with toy guns as an accessory. “Our rule has been 'no buying gun toys,' but there are a couple that have slipped in that are attached to something that we’ve let slide or disappear,” Shannon, a mom of a 4-year-old boy who prefers to only use her first name, tells Yahoo Life. For example, she says her son received a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy that had a toy weapon attached. After that first day, it disappeared from the house.
Parents like Shannon who have young kids have a lot more control over the toys their child plays with, so they can remove the gun accessory from the package or donate the toy if it’s not removable. However, if a child is older, like 5 or 6, and picking out toys themselves, Cordiano says parents can continue setting limits and tell their kids they can pick a figure with a gun, but the gun will be removed before they can play with it.
Cordiano also cautions parents against judging parents who don’t let their kids play with toy guns because they consider it an overreaction. “I live in Cleveland where Tamir Rice was killed because he was carrying a replica toy gun. This is something that especially may be on the mind of parents of Black children, especially Black boys. This is not an overreaction, it is something we really need to consider with regard to safety, and it doesn’t apply equally to all children and all families.”
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