My kids are asking for toy weapons; what should I do?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH
Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Last week Rich commented on video game addiction and parenting style, this week he advises a mother on how to turn her child’s toy gun obsession into a lesson about why she doesn’t want him using violent toys and gain insight into the child’s perception of violence.

Q: Despite their very limited access to television (and no access to video games), my 4-year-old son has just started asking for a toy gun and sword. I think he’s picking up these ideas from boys at school who run around the playground and play “shooter.” Now my 2-year-old daughter is joining in and making a gun with her hand and saying, “Mommy, I kill you.” Any thoughts or suggestions on how to best handle this situation?
-Weapons for Wee Ones? in Miami, FL

A: Dear Weapons for Wee Ones,

Aggressive behavior and fantasy play is natural for 2 and 4 year olds, especially for boys. What you can do as a parent is to teach your kids how to channel these violent acts into a thoughtful response to violent behavior.

For example, when your 2-year-old makes her hand into a gun, take this opportunity to find out what she’s thinking instead of simply telling her not to play in that way. You can say something like, “Oh, is that a gun? What does a gun do? Does it hurt people or help people? Okay…do you really want to hurt me?” This will help her learn to think through her actions, what they mean, and what effects they can have.

It sounds like you’re hesitant to provide your children with toy weapons, and I agree with that instinct. Why? Because there’s something very different going on when a child plays with a plastic replica of a 9 mm pistol than when he pretends that his hand or a stick is a gun. A hand can be used for many things, but a plastic gun can only be used to play at killing other people. In addition, studies confirm that when children are given toy guns, they play more aggressively than when they are given non-aggressive toys like airplanes.

To address you son’s requests, explain that you are happy to provide other things for him to play with but not toys that look like weapons; the positive message you are sending is that you don’t consider that kind of play appropriate or acceptable.  You can also engage with him in his fantasy play and help him get in touch with other aspects of the characters he wants to be. Pirates, princes, cowboys, and cops all have other important duties to attend to aside from sword- and gun-fighting!

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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