Kids, toy guns and violent play: The story of one mother who changed her mind


Photo by Flickr user Steven Ha.

In our constant effort to keep kids from growing up to be violent thugs, we do a lot of things. We don’t let them play with toy weapons. We cut back on the first-person shooters. We divert them from “cowboys and indians.” But should we?

Over at The Atlantic, one mom, Christine Gross-Loh, writes about moving to Tokyo with her husband and two kids, and discovering that kids there engage in lots of (toy) gunplay, and adults don’t seem to worry about it. And although violent crime is on the rise in Japan, or at least was two years ago, it’s still much less than we see in America — or even many American states.

What Gross-Loh saw made her wonder if Americans’ choice to restrict kids’ violent play is the right approach. In fact, she strongly suggests that it isn’t:

Although many of us in America worry that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, the research doesn’t bear this out. In fact, it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. As Mechling explains, using the theories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, when children are playing with toy guns, they do so within a play frame they have created, one in which “a shooting is not a shooting.” Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play, while to American adults–especially in the post-Columbine or Newtown era–gun play is violence.

Beyond that, stifling boys in particular from engaging in the kind of play they’re most drawn to may be setting them back, she says:

When children are engaged in play they choose, they are more engaged and motivated to sustain it for longer. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play. The British government, in fact, concerned by a pattern of preschool boys falling behind girls in part due to zero-tolerance policies that had led teachers to curb any hint of boisterous play, advised preschools to allow boys to play with toy weapons and other play of their choosing, since the research suggests that acknowledging their interests will help them feel more engaged in school and improve their academic performance.

The whole thing is worth a read. As the parent of a young, boisterous child, it’s giving me a lot to think about. If you’re interested in a deeper look at children’s need for aggressive and violent imaginative play, check out Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters.

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One response to “Kids, toy guns and violent play: The story of one mother who changed her mind

  1. Good article.
    I thought that writer’s name sounded familiar, and was amused when I realized she’d written a book on elimination communication I read a while back! =)
    It looks like she has a book on cross-cultural parenting practices that looks good, so I’ll probably pick that up.
    There is a similar book (conceptually, anyway) out by another author, How do Eskimoes Keep Their Babies Warm (Mei-Ling Hopgood) and that also includes a chapter on Japanese parenting. It doesn’t focus on gun play in particular, but it says that Japanese schools and parents tend to let kids work out their own issues on the playground, even if that means a bit of violence and rough play and hurt feelings. Worth a read, if you enjoy discussions of cross-cultural parenting practices.

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