On a recent afternoon, as I pushed my toddler on a swing, I watched a pair of 8-year-old boys chase each other with sticks, yelling “Bang! You’re dead! I shot you!” It was so commonplace that the scene didn’t register as anything uneasy until an hour later, when I learned of yet another shooting on the evening news; sadly, also commonplace. It struck me that in a few years, I’ll be sending my toddler to school, where she’ll learn duck-and-cover and active shooter drills. Pretending to shoot a gun may be just “kids being kids.” When it comes to “playing guns,” should there be greater care and attention to this make-believe?
One of the first people I talked to is my mother-in-law, Alice Hoffmann, a retired preschool teacher who for 31 years watched children find inventive ways to make weapons from just about anything they could get their hands on. She has seen it all.
“They’ll build a gun out of Legos, out of the curved block piece. If we were outside, it’d be a stick. They’ll take things out of the kitchen area or make it out of whatever they can get and say ‘bang!’ or point it,” she says.
Hoffmann says every kid figures out what guns are, whether by home environment (family), through friends playing (especially if their friends have older siblings), or most often through television and movies. Even Woody, beloved sheriff of Toy Story, points his fingers into the iconic shape and drawls, “Reach for the sky!”
Trying to shield children from guns is futile in a culture so saturated with guns. So, does “playing guns” ever have a heavier meaning than simply “kids being kids”?
“There is certainly no evidence that playing with toy guns [or] pretending to shoot predicts aggressive behavior, so the good news is that we don’t need to worry when we see children engaging in this type of play,” says Caroline Kerns, a clinical psychologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. With an expertise in evidence-based treatments for child psychopathology, especially during early childhood, Kerns walked me through what the research shows.
“Imaginative play is a form of play that involves children pretending to inhabit roles and engage in activities as part of an imaginary scenario of their own creation. It is also commonly called pretend play or ‘make-believe’ play,” explains Kerns. “Simple pretend may be observed as early as 18 months (e.g., feeding or bathing a doll or stuffed animal) and becomes increasingly more sophisticated as a child develops.”
Though it may seem odd to compare playing train conductors or princesses to playing guns, the latter is very much a part of imaginative play that all kids—boys and girls—explore and try out. And like anything a kid is into, they eventually move beyond. As any parent can attest, this year’s fixation is easily forgotten when something new comes along. Parents and early childhood educators need not worry too much about pretend shooting on the playground.
Kerns goes on to note that making a big deal out of certain behaviors, like pretend shooting, can actually have the reverse effect and make the behavior more enticing. Instead, she suggests that parents try to redirect any behavior they observe. “Chances are, if you take a neutral stance, it will eventually run its course,” she says.
These principles apply to the classroom as well. Hoffmann’s 31 years of classroom experience proves the “non-reaction” approach helps teach children to make more emotional, relational connections to their actions.
“When they are [in preschool], if we see a kid playing aggressively with any weapon, we distract and divert their attention because kids that age don’t understand. If it seems like a bigger issue or something a kid won’t let go, we then talk about how some actions hurt our friends and pointing or hitting are those kinds of actions,” she says.
While Hoffmann notes that there are lessons available about teaching gun safety, similar to the curriculum that emphasizes “stranger danger,” but for preschoolers, the focus is always on positive and kind actions, and not hurting one another. If a parent or teacher sees a child playing too aggressively with a toy, it’s important to set and enforce appropriate rules, such as “no hitting with the magic wand” or “we don’t point things at our friends.” Learning early cues about what is OK and not OK helps set the stage for responsible behavior as the child ages out of “playing pretend.”
“When it comes to discussions about pretend gun play, it’s helpful to keep in mind that children know the difference between reality and fantasy, even as early as the toddler years,” adds Kerns. “Keeping that in mind, and knowing that the research does not raise cause for concern, it may not be necessary to have in-depth discussions about playing with toy guns. In most cases, parental modeling of nonviolence in day-to-day life is a much stronger way of communicating those beliefs and values than directly addressing the child’s play activities.”
I’ve never held a real gun, and, frankly, the idea of being in the same room as one makes me nervous. However, my discomfort with guns doesn’t preclude my child from navigating a gun-experiencing world. The unfortunate truth is that gun violence is a part of our culture, and children are exposed to it no matter how much we try to protect them.
Kerns brings up a good point that maybe the worry over gun culture is unintentionally making the issue more fraught. She notes, “I find myself wondering if the ‘fascination with guns’ is not so much on the part of our children as it is on parents or adults. Because many of us find it a bit distressing to see our children pretending to shoot guns, I wonder if we are prone to over-interpreting those actions. When a child picks up a stick and pretends it is a magic wand, we may think ‘how sweet,’ if we think anything at all. But when that child points the stick at someone and says ‘bang,’ it is emotionally charged for us, and we pay more attention to what it might mean.”
So if a child starts pointing “gun sticks” and yelling “bang, you’re dead!” adults should use that moment to emphasize that friends don’t hurt each other, even in pretend, then divert attention to another game. What adults should not do is freak out that a child has destructive tendencies and instead watch how the child interacts with others.
For younger children, a discussion about morality and how actions have consequences can be a good place to start. For Catholic parents, youth minsters, and educators, highlighting specific principles of Catholic social teaching can provide a solid framework to encourage children to think of how they move in the world, even as future conversations about guns become more mature. Parents, youth ministers, and educators might use the following principles to extend how care for others—in all forms—is especially connected to how children play and interact with others.
Life and dignity of the human person—Human life is sacred, and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.
Call to family, community, and participation—The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society in economics and politics, in law and policy, directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.
Rights and responsibilities—Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency.
Solidarity—We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.
Care for God’s creation—We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.
My child is still a toddler, rarely far from my immediate physical protection. But soon she’ll be in preschool, and her tiny world will burst open to all experiences—good and bad. While I cannot stop or mitigate every possible scenario for her safety, I can educate myself on what I can do now to help make her life, our neighborhood, and, ideally, the world she’ll grow up in a little safer.
It starts with voting for the policies and policymakers that have similar views on gun safety and control. And it starts with getting involved. Organizations like the Brady Campaign, Moms Demand Action, and Everytown for Gun Safety are nonpartisan organizations dedicated to providing the necessary support and education to reduce gun violence in America. Local chapters throughout the country work toward making accurate information, important legislation facts, and family-forward gun policies accessible to all neighborhoods.
“A simple truth is that too many tragedies occur because proper weight has not been given to the risks that come with gun ownership. There is a cultural narrative that emphasizes the protective and recreational benefits of guns, while virtually ignoring the possible and very real dangers,” according to “The Truth about Guns and Kids,” a report by the Brady Center. “Educating the public about the relative risks and benefits of gun ownership has the potential to change social norms without jeopardizing the rights of law-abiding gun owners. Patterns of irresponsible behavior can be shifted.”
And, of course, this starts with conversations with friends, family, neighbors, and playdate parents. It’s important to know and understand the household rules and safety precautions in homes where a child will be spending time. While right now it might feel awkward to ask about safety precautions about guns in a playdate’s home, every parent can understand the reasoning. It’s better to be on the same page than to be caught unaware. Everytown Research found that nearly 2 million American children live in homes with guns that are not stored responsibly. Currently campaigns such as Asking Saves Kids (ASK) believe that asking the question “Is there an unlocked gun where my child plays?” could be the first step to educating ourselves.
The truth is that this is a heavy, disheartening, terrifying topic to think about. While more than 33,000 shooting deaths occur each year in America, and while we wait for all sides of the government to make realistic, actionable, airtight laws around gun ownership and accessibility, the rest of us—parents, teachers, law enforcement, all people who exist in the world—have to figure out what we can do to best safeguard our families, our friends, our workplaces, our selves.
This article also appears in the November 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 11, pages 28–30).