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Ask The Experts: What’s the Deal with Boys + Guns?

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An interview with Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Michael Thompson

I’m not sure when it happened.  But it seemed out of the blue when my boy started making “rockets with guns that shoot bad guys.”

A variety of iterations on the theme of gun play passes through our home and I’m mystified.  I never use the word gun.  We have no pretend or real guns in the house.  It’s got to be a combo of peer influence and the limited media I’ve exposed him to — “Iron Giant” anyone?  Okay, so maybe it’s obvious.  But, one viewing – just one – and guns are a fixation for him.  Why did this weapon take such a grip on his imagination?

Many parents I know are equally flabbergasted and wonder — is it a boy thing? According to Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Michael Thompson, both authors and experts on child development, the answer is basically yes.  Read on to hear their take on boys and gunplay, and what parents should do about it.  — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

LM:  Why are most boys so fascinated by guns?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige: Throughout time and across cultures, young children—especially boys—have been fascinated with war and weapons play. This kind of play, where “good guys” pursue, capture, and pretend to shoot “bad guys,” satisfies many developmental interests and needs young children have. Perhaps more than any other form of play, war play allows children to feel a sense of mastery and power. As young kids “fight” and overcome the bad guys of their imaginary world, they feel strong and in control. Children can express feelings of hostility and fear toward their imaginary foes and get some inner control over these feelings. They can pit good against bad, which is a neat match for how young children tend to see things in separate compartments. Many children need war and weapons play, especially those who feel helpless in their lives, as so many children do when having to face scary situations such as separation from home, going to school, and for some, divorce, illness or neighborhood violence.

Today, children’s war and weapons play has changed. It has come under the heavy influence of media and media-linked toys that often drive the story lines and characters that children reenact in their play. As war play has become more dominated by media scripts and then reinforced by the toys that go along with those scripts, it has become a less valuable form of play for children because there is less room for their own ideas, imaginations, and needs to emerge during the play experience.

Michael Thompson:  Since the beginning of time boys have engaged in rough-and-tumble games like wrestling and tag; they have also always played with sticks, engaged in mock fighting and thrown stones at one another. A man in Connecticut once told me that when he and his brother were fighting too much in the house, his mother would say, “Why don’t you boys go outside and throw rocks at each other?” Now, there was a mother who understood that boys need to engage in rough play and who also trusted them. The two brothers never hurt each other seriously because they loved each other. It was just play.

Neurologists believe that one of the main differences between the the brains of boys and the brains of girls is that boys are wired for dominance behaviors; all primate males, including chimpanzees and baboons, engage in rough-and-tumble play. Evolutionary psychologists believe boys are simply playing out their hunter—as in hunter-gatherer—heritage. Obviously, evolution cannot have prepared the boy brain for guns; guns haven’t been around that long. They are, however, easily worked into play because they project a boy’s power (“Bang, bang…you’re dead!”) and become part of boys’ hunt-and-chase games. Think about paint ball arenas. Boys like them…and so do many young men.

LM: What should parents do about that fascination?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige: We can best support our children when we help them play in ways that truly meet their developmental interests and needs. A first step in doing this is to limit the exposure our kids have to entertainment violence and media-linked weapons and toys that can potentially undermine their healthy, creative play. Then, as our children play, if we see a good guy/bad guy theme emerge that they invent, and if they need a weapon that they themselves make out of blocks, cubes, or a stick, we can feel quite confident that this play is coming from them and has the potential to meet their needs.

We should remember to give children uninterrupted time and space every day for play and provide open-ended toys and materials that encourage them to imagine and invent their own ideas for play; these include such things as blocks, play dough, dress-ups, building materials, and generic dolls and animals. Because open-ended toys do not have a defined identity, children can make them into anything they want or need to make –a gun, a car, an animal, a sword. Materials like this, because they are not predefined, foster more imaginative and meaningful play. Many children do have some media-linked weapons such as store bought swords or guns, and if they do play with these, we can encourage them to bring in more open-ended toys to use at the same time. For example, you could suggest that your child make a “cave” with blocks where he can put the “bad guy” after he’s caught; or, you could ask questions like, “Can you use these blocks to make a place to put the bad guy?”

Michael Thompson: Many parents, especially mothers, believe that if boys play with guns they will grow up to be violent. There is no scientific evidence for this belief. Many peaceful men played with guns when they were boys. Parents need to remember the difference between play and real violence; play is fun and consensual; aggression is meant to hurt and it does. Parents should intervene when things get angry and out of control. If boys are just playing, even though the themes are violent, parents should trust their sons and let them play.

Parents also need to listen to and respect the play of boys. Boys typically create fantasy play which involves battles between Good and Evil (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in “Star Wars”) and in which they can play heroic roles. Boys are practicing to be heroes; boys are learning to control their angry impulses. That’s the purpose of play. Incidentally, it is not a bad sign that boys are attracted to the idea of playing villains.  It gives good boys a chance to imagine themselves being evil and powerful.  Besides, other boys really respond to the villain.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University and author of several books including, “Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids” and “War Play Dilemma:  Balancing Needs and Values in the Early Childhood Classroom.”

Michael Thompson is a psychologist, school consultant, and author or co-author of eight books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,”  and most recently, “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen.”

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series, “Ruby’s Studio:  The Feelings Show,” which helps young children understand and express their feelings.  We know it’s your kind of programming!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn