I relented on my toy gun ban. Here's what I learned.
One worried mom's story of fake weapons and resilient kids
Toy guns were never part of my parenting plan. In fact, for a long time, I had a no-guns-at-home policy that was total and unwavering, extending even to the Nerf and water varieties. The ban was instituted for ideological and safety reasons; it bears repeating that we have a crisis of gun violence in America. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 40,000 people in the U.S. died of gun-related violence (homicide, suicide, or accidental shooting) in 2017. Three in 10 American adults own at least one gun; many own more. I am not one of them, and I loathe for my kids to grow up believing that anything made to kill another living being is cool, or fun, or normal.
But to my great surprise, I've recently come around on the issue of toy guns. I wouldn't recommend gifting them at a baby shower, or a second birthday, nor would I supply them automatically to any child. But, if I were to relive my kids' earlier years, my emphatic no would perhaps become a maybe. After all, toys — even toy weapons — are about make-believe, and my kids seem to understand that better than I did.
Many children, regardless of their backgrounds or parental proclivities, delight in toy guns and other gun-like things. I've heard stories of households without toy guns where little ones fashion them out of clay or sticks or toast. Maybe this is because, at one point or another, even the most sheltered of kids will meet other kids with toy guns. Maybe kids are drawn to guns because in our society — and in mainstream media especially — guns are a symbol of power. Or maybe it's just that, in my son's own words, shooting stuff is fun.
But for upwards of nine years, my ban never wavered. When my daughter and son, now seven and nearly 10, were tiny, shielding them from toy guns was simple. I kept them away from mainstream media and informed any potential gift-givers of the no-gun policy. Then, once my kids were old enough to realize they were missing out on a certain ilk of plaything, they pined after shooting implements. How they begged for the forbidden. But if anything remotely gun-like breached my defenses, I was sure to weed it out. My protections may have been, in retrospect, a tad extreme, but — in service to their innocence — I regret nothing.
Then, everything changed, as my family prepared for a long-distance move. Toy-by-toy, my kids were required to cull their stash. They sensed my weakness in the moment, and ruthlessly exploited it the way kids do. "Mom," they asked, "in our new house can we have just one Nerf gun?"
Distracted and overwhelmed by the towers of boxes and the even taller to-do list — I relented, hoping they'd soon forget my lapse. But once we were settled again, they remembered. One Nerf weapon turned into two. Two Nerfs required the purchase of more Nerf "darts." And belts. And camo. And eye protection. And another Nerf weapon each. Plus water guns.
I tried to comfort myself. They're brightly-colored, I thought. I have not exchanged hard-earned cash for AR-15 lookalikes.
Nevertheless, the once-banned toys crept insidiously, inexorably into our lives, our cupboards, my dreams. The first time a neighbor kid showed up at our house with an arsenal, I nearly slammed the door in the 6-year-old's face. But, swallowing my aversion, I stepped aside, both physically and symbolically, to yield my own kids the privilege of self-determination.
Meanwhile, my inner hippie mom (who, long before parenthood, earned a Master's in conflict resolution) screamed, How did this happen to us?! And my mind raced: What if toy guns draw my kids' interest to shooting-style video games? What if violent media encourages the use of real guns to solve problems? Would they streak through the yard like miniaturized warriors, aiming guns at faces or hearts, shouting, "Bang! You're dead!"?
But my fears weren't realized. Whether by genetics or upbringing — or, hopefully, their own internal controls — my children quickly rejected the guns offered by their new friend. Later, in the slow, final days of summer, I captured a video on my phone of my son and daughter half-heartedly marching around the backyard, each with a toy gun slung over a shoulder. They each shoot the camera an embarrassed look. At the end of the 30-second clip, my daughter says sweetly, "this is boring."
Music to my ears, child.
Now that it's turned colder, the water guns have been put away. And the Nerf weapons — no longer new, no longer forbidden — are also shelved. Perhaps my fears were unwarranted. Perhaps toy guns have little or nothing to do with kids wanting their hands on the real thing. Perhaps biology tells all, and there was little I could have done to encourage or discourage the interest. Science suggests weaponized play is rooted in social development. As social psychologist Jeffrey Goldstein of Utrecht University's Institute for Cultural Inquiry told The Week, playing with toy guns may help children hone social skills and learn about reading others' emotions and intentions, or work through their own feelings about aggression and violence.
Or perhaps — and I am likely giving myself way too much credit here — it has more to do with context and conversation: the endless, seemingly unproductive talks about how to have big feelings and yet not cause harm; the many reminders about awareness of others' needs as well as one's own; the fact that adults in their lives don't turn to violence to solve problems; the (mostly) age-appropriate use of media.
In this process, I learned that my kids show far more humanity than I gave them credit for, and I am humbled.
I asked my son the other night what he thought of my long-time toy gun ban, and of the fact that I later relented. His response was wholly unsatisfying, but it was also perfectly representative of kids' ability to fail their parents' expectations while at the same time wildly surpassing them: "I don't know," he said. "It's not a big deal, Mom. Seriously, whatever."
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