Santa brought my 5-year-old son a Nerf gun. If you told me years ago when I was pregnant that this would happen, I would have told you that you were crazy. I was going to have a “no toy weapons” household.
I get that kids will make their own weapons out of sticks, blocks, or even their own hands. I just wasn’t comfortable putting the weapon in my son’s hand myself.
In the United States, toys, books and movies centered around play fighting are marketed to young boys at an early age. And, as the saying goes, “boys will be boys”, and I knew my son might love play fighting or be friends with others who owned full toy arsenals. I assumed we’d have to deal with it someday; I just wasn’t sure in what form.
As my son started to develop his own interests, weapons were not one of them. He enjoys safe things with rational explanations: tools, vehicles, science. We have our share of fantasy play with Tigger & Pooh, but he has always been spooked by things that are too fanciful and things that in real life would be concerning, which includes all things related to play fighting.
Star Wars, Transformers, Pirates…all of these were completely anxiety provoking to him. If we were at the playground and someone showed up with a toy sword, he would ask to leave. Our stays at Halloween parties were over the minute the first Storm Trooper showed up.
I don’t want to paint him as nervous all of the time. He is a happy kid. He’s just into what he’s into. At 3 years old, his favorite tv show was “New Yankee Workshop,” an instructional woodworking program here in the States. He was obsessed with tools. I even found him taking the hinges off his bedroom door with a screwdriver!
I must admit that early on I loved that my son couldn’t be bothered with weapon play. I thought that if he wasn’t into it, I wouldn’t have to worry about him pretending to shoot up the nice grandmas at the park. But, what I came to realize was that while he couldn’t be bothered with weapon play, weapon play bothered him, a lot.
As he got older, I saw how a paralyzing fear of play fighting could hurt him socially in regards to running with the boys. I am ok with him deciding to not participate, but I didn’t want him fleeing from the playground and cowering by his teacher.
So, my husband and I began Operation Toy Weapon Acclimation. We knew if we broke things down for my super literal, hands-on son to a how-it-works level, he would be more comfortable and not fear this in the same way. We started with a foam sword. Next, we got some water guns.
And, while my son doesn’t like being squirted, he LOVES chasing and squirting his father. We also expanded his Lego collection (building blocks) to include some Star Wars kits, where the mini-figures come with tiny guns and light sabers. He was totally interested in hearing the stories of the movies (which we told at a very preschool level). And, we introduced him to the superheroes of the Justice League.
We coupled these toys with discussions on respectful weapon play. We talked about what it means to pretend fight, and how do you know if what you or someone else is doing is ok. We talked about what to do when he wants to join in or doesn’t want to join in. We talked about how it’s make believe, but we also talked about true weapon safety in the real world.
To this day, 9 times out of 10 my son will choose an activity that has nothing to do with play fighting or weapons, which I’ll admit still makes me happy. My agenda is not to turn him into some preschool soldier. I just want him to have a basic understanding of the things that most little boys are into so that he isn’t terrified when someone on the playground is pretending to be Darth Vader.
I want him to understand what constitutes respectful weapon play. I don’t want to make him more anxious, but I do want to validate his concerns over violence in a way appropriate to his age and understanding. And, I want him to have confidence in the choices he makes on the games he will play and not feel pressured to do anything he isn’t comfortable with.
At a recent playdate, the kids were wrestling. I overheard normal kid threats going on, which formerly would throw my son into a tizzy. But he was totally in on it for a while before emerging for a break. He told me, “that game was getting too crazy for me,” like it was no big deal, and then he moved on to something else. I was so proud of him. He stayed in the thick of it while it was fun and then calmly left when it wasn’t. I can’t say giving him a sword made this happen, but I don’t think it hurt either.
So this last holiday, my son enjoyed his new foam shooting rifle with light up scope.
He still doesn’t want to be “attacked,” but he can mess around with the mechanical parts of the toy and have fun shooting with his father. Whether he ever wants to play fight isn’t the issue for me. It’s about him understanding his own mind and emotions, making choices with confidence, and respecting those around him. If he can do that, then I will feel like he has won the battle.
Have you addressed play fighting or toy weapons with your kids? How is this type of play regarded in your culture? What rules or guidelines have you set for your household? How do you handle it with other parents/kids who have differing philosophies?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Tara B. of Washington (State) USA.
Photo credit to Tara B.
What a fabulous approach, Tara, and how cool that you adapted your parenting when you saw your initial path not working. We have three boys, and we have certainly progressed from no weapons to water-pistols and a few swords and wooden daggers. We have Star-Wars lego, too. The boys have an uncle who hunts, so they get to see responsible use of a gun – and a father who uses a bow for hunting – so they get to use them safely.(We have lots of dead cardboard boxes.)A friend of mine who raised twin boys to be completely peaceful found them shooting each other with their toothbrushes…The awareness your son has of when it all is too much for him is the important aspect, I think. Really great post. 🙂
Thanks kloppenum! I didn’t address hunting in this post, but our discussions would have been different or happened much sooner had my husband or I hunted and could show him gun safety in that context. I had to instead rely on Christopher Robbin’s pop gun in Winnie the Pooh for a theoretical discussion :-). I appreciate you sharing your experiences too. 3 boys….wow! While I don’t want my kids to grow up before their time, I am finding it is better to help them deal with things rather than to totally shield them.
I agree with your last sentence, completely. 🙂
I had the same attitude as you did before you were in the situation — no toy weapons. However, when my daughter was given water guns to play with, we wound up letting her play with them. I played with them all the time as a kid. It’s so different with boys though because they are exposed to a much greater toy arsenal! This is an interesting topic you bring up!
Thanks for your input, Veronica. And while I am focusing on boys since I have 2 sons, it does obviously effect girls too. Funny side story about water guns – a friend of mine also has a no-toy-weapons philosophy and had trouble even saying the word “gun” when her kids were given water guns. She called them “water squirters”. She just wasn’t ready for her kids to even say the word. But I also have friends who sons are obsessed with toy guns. One mom had to repack her son’s carry on bag for a flight because all he packed inside were toy weapons. Could you imagine trying to go through security with that?!
Interesting post! So would you say it was a mistake not to let your son play with guns and other such ‘weapons’ as a kid? Or is it unique to your son.
As a Lego fan myself, I think LEGOS are one of the perfect toys – they allow all type of creativity to be unleashed.
Thanks for your comments and question, mezba! I think my son would be skittish around toy weapons and play fighting no matter what. It’s just how he is wired up. But I don’t think it helped that he wasn’t exposed to them at home and then saw kids running around being so aggressive. He was scared of it and didn’t understand it. And I am sure I gave off some funky vibes on the topic, whether I meant to or not. Kids see that stuff.
As for the Legos, we are also a HUGE Lego household. My husband loved them growing up and has grown up kits for himself. My son’s collection is growing every holiday. They are wonderful toys, and my son not only loves building specific models but also making his own designs. So fun!
Tara, you’re a great writer and I enjoyed reading your post. My five-year-old is a girl and my two-year-old a boy but ironically, it is my girl that is the more aggressive, weapon oriented of the two. I think her first exposure to weapons came in the sketches of Avery (Fern’s older brother) found in the book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This year she attends a nature preschool which is 80% boys and the play is very rough. For me, the conflict comes with trying not to gender stereotype that weapon play and aggression are a “boy thing” but it’s hard. Thanks for giving me some ideas about gentle ways to introduce play fighting on a pacifistic level. I agree, sometimes shielding them from what’s out there actually can be more damaging than letting them play with it.
Thank you for your kind words, and I am glad if my post gave you some ideas. My son is kind of in the opposite scenario as your daughter as he tends to play with the girls in his class b/c they aren’t doing the shooter stuff. So I also work hard not to gender stereotype. And I love the idea of a nature preschool. Best to you and your little ones!
Added, I really like your blog! 🙂
I had the same attitude about toy weapons. But now that Sam is almost 5, I have realized it’s impossible. I don’t buy him toy guns, although I’m sure at some point Nerf guns and/or water guns will inhabit our house. He has a toy sword. But some of the shows and movies he watches have guns/blasters, and even if they didn’t, he’s learned it from other kids.
I think you’ve done a good job with Nate, and it’s pretty awesome that you realized that his LACK of interested/fear of weapons could be a problem.
Thanks Rachael! I appreciate your ongoing support as my friend and fellow mom 😉
I did not want to bring toy weapons around my son, either. Eventually, he got a water gun, nerf, etc and enjoys playing with them. He’s not agressive and takes it all in fun. The other thing I swore off was “violent tv”. But he loves Avatar and Terminator Salvation (yikes! Thanks to his dad). He’s interested in robots and monsters and aliens.
But I think the play fighting thing at a young age can be a problem. I have seen parents have to reverse course when a son does not realize other kids do not play like that. We never play fight with him. It’s easy to spot kids that have learned to play like that at home.
Thanks for your comment, Heather. I agree that play fighting is tricky business from all angles. It’s good to keep the conversation going and share experiences/perspectives.
Tara, this is such a thoughtful post! I, too, had many of the same reservations about guns (and Barbies!). But you make such a valuable point, that we want our kids to acclimate and be flexible while still aware of messages, etc. It sounds like you handled this phenomenally. I’d like to think that as long as the conversation is WIDE open and we’re constantly revisiting messages, etc. that we’re doing okay. Well done here, Mama! Truly. 🙂
Thank you so much, Galit! It has been a work in progress, but I am happy with both what my son is learning from these conversations/experiences, as well as what I am learning!