Playing with toy weapons: inevitable or preventable?

Guest post by Victoria Brooke Rodrigues
By: Andy MangoldCC BY 2.0

When I tell people we don’t allow toy weapons in our house, I get one of those knowing looks. This look is the dreaded “you’ll see” combined with an accusation: unrealistic control freak, in the house!

The “you’ll see” is meant to tell me that while I can be keep plastic guns and knives off our living room floor with baby and toddler boys, there is no way I can do it when they are older. The accusation is that if I do achieve this, I will have those kids who spend 24 hours a day at their friend’s house, avoiding home because their mom won’t let them have the latest recreational-stabbing-simulation game or more than one can of Coke.

I am not naïve. I know my kids will be exposed to weaponry. I know kids don’t grow up to be ax murderers because they shouted en garde in pretend swordfights. But I also know the psychology behind de-sensitivity to violence and aggressive stimuli. I know that when I am at a house without toy weapons, the kids almost never choose violence as their theme of play, and when I am at a house with toy weapons, a kid inevitably pretends to shoot my six month old in the face.

But this isn’t really about toy weapons in particular — it is about the insinuation that implementing parenting policies supporting your values is all or nothing. It is about the difference between resigning total control in your children’s lives versus total resignation.

For example: your son is going have McDonald’s eventually, so why try avoid fast food and why bother to feed him organics in early childhood? Or, your tween daughter is going to be bombarded with sexuality and unrealistic female images, so why not get her a subscription to Cosmo?

The world is going to give my boys a million options, but my home is where I demonstrate where our family stands. The world will teach them about aggression while at home we will try to teach love and gentleness. The world will teach them about indulgence, and at home we will try to teach balance in mind and body. Even if our kids grow up to think we’re out of touch hippies, my husband and I will be satisfied knowing we did what we thought was right.

When we are at a friend’s house and the toy guns make an appearance, I ask Jonah not to point them in anyone’s face, and that’s about it. I don’t pretend he will never play with one. Eventually when he wants to know why he doesn’t have a gun in his own house, I hope he will notice over time that the explanation — guns can hurt people and I don’t like to see you pretending to hurt others — is backed up by our parenting actions.

We endeavor to instill our values at home without withholding the world, and I don’t think that is anything to smirk at.

Comments on Playing with toy weapons: inevitable or preventable?

  1. Great post! Way to say what the rest of us are thinking. Finding your child playing out cops and robbers or pretend war is one thing; Making weapons and violent demonstrations (shows) highly accessible is another. There’s no harm (rather good) to living a peaceful example.

  2. I feel you so much on this issue. One of the more common themes of conversation with people I have is the ” just wait until your kid goes to school and finds out other kids get plastic toys/mcdurnalds/tv/guns, then all your good intentions will be for naught” And to a degree, Ive seen it happen many times. But just because your kid will come home from his first day of preschool saying “pew pew pew!” Doesnt mean all the gentleness and compassion you taught is gone.

  3. My mother had an extremely strict policy on having no toy weapons in the house. No squirt guns, nothing. My brother ended up saving his allowance to buy Nerf weapons and would walk over a mile to the KMART to get them. However, those values were still instilled in us and I have a particularly strong aversion to violence.

    Although… my mom didn’t allow video games either and that same brother also saved up his money to buy a Sega Genesis that he hid in his room and grew up to become a computer engineering major who now programs video games for a living!!! 🙂 So, I guess it’s the thought that counts!

  4. My view on “play fighting” tends to be a bit skewed because my partner makes a living out of it–he’s working toward certification in the Society of American Fight Directors. We know that there will be weapons in our home (locked, naturally), and we want to prepare our eventual kids for them.

    Our goal is to keep safety a top priority–“We shoot at targets, not people.” “We don’t hit with weapons.” “We miss on purpose because it’s more fun when nobody ends up in the ER.” These concepts are all simplified versions of what my partner uses in his training. I know that kids will push every single one of those boundaries, but it’s about instilling a value in them.

    Also, what really bothers me is when people give toy weapons to other people’s children as gifts. I mean, my household might be okay with weaponry, but it’s pretty presumptuous to assume that everyone else feels the same way. Plus it puts parents trying to limit toy weapons in a really awkward position.

    • Thank you, thank you for putting this out there! I feel the same way as you–my husband is a police officer, so we do have weapons in the house and that’s not going to change once our little one is born. I’ve been trying to figure out how we’re going to explain the fine line between “Guns hurt people…” and “…but Papa carries one every day to keep people safe” and your comment definitely gave me some food for thought.

  5. Good for you! I was raised without weapons in the home, although my brothers and I still played “stick fight” from time to time. But my toddler has already gotten access to his papa’s nerf swords and plastic battle-axe (old halloween props) and I’m a bit conflicted about it. On the one hand, I don’t want to promote violence, but on the other hand, these are clearly toys. I’m teaching him not to hit people or animals with them (or with anything, really), but he loves to use the axe to “chop” firewood. I guess it’s just another one of those parenting “do the best you can with lots of love” things.

  6. I think this post is absolutely awesome. My parents did everything they could to raise us weapon/Barbie/video game free and of course in the end all three of us were exposed to these things at some point or another. But the point isn’t, and never was, to completely shelter us from a part of childhood that is pretty much ievitable in this part of the world. The point was to instill in us a sense peace, a sense of selfworth and a strong connection with nature. And even though my brother spent lots of time at his friends’ houses ‘beating the next level’ and a friend of the family lovingly dropped of a giant garbage bag of barbies for us it all comes back to the values that were instilled in us. Of course children will sway from our ideals and test our boundries over and over again and the truth is all we can do is our very best and hope that in the end they will follow. And in the case of my family we did.

  7. YES! Awesome post!

    I have never understand why other people are so pessimistic about parents trying to instill values in their own children! I am going to be sending this post to anyone who wants to be so negative about me trying to make the best home possible for my daughter!

  8. Maybe one of my favorite Offbeat Mama posts ever – I love how you stand behind your belief and the objective way you see the world – we’re not trying to shield our children, necessarily, but to teach them. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I’ve seen kids pick up a toy truck and play with it like a gun. So it’s not always possible for weapon toys to be avoided – kids can turn anything into a weapon if they are so inclined. The importance is the teaching behind why there are no weapons in the house – gentleness, respect for each other.

    • I realize that he can turn other things into weapons, but there is a reinforcing factor IMO to having representations of them available. But the post is more about chiding parents for making value-based parenting policies, and making such efforts seem hopelessly futile.

  10. Thank-you!!! I really appreciated your insights especially the misguided assumption that value teaching is an all or nothing affair. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by that attitude (which seems to be quite strong in parenting circles) that it seems hopeless, why bother trying to instil my strange values into my children when it’s such an uphill battle? Your post gave me a nice boost 🙂

  11. I’m a US soldier and my father is a firearms instructor/martial artist, so I’ve safely lived with weapons my entire life. My two toddlers will grow up the same. I was always taught it is NEVER ok to pretend to shoot people, even in play. I’m fine with my sons (or daughters if I ever have any) playing with toy weapons when they’re older, but not right now when I can’t explain to them what a real gun is and what it can do. IMHO, guns, knives, swords, etc. are tools that can be used for many purposes; what matters is whether the intent of the person using them is good or bad. Having a weapon in the house does not necessarily mean you are wanting to teach your children a violent outlook on life.

    That being said, I understand that the post is not really about the toy guns issue, but about what values you choose to teach in the home versus what the world is trying to teach your child. Hooray for strong values at home.

    • “it is NEVER ok to pretend to shoot people, even in play”

      I grew up in a house with lots of toy guns/swords/etc in it, and real guns too (safely locked; bullets stored in a separate, also locked location) – we had the same lesson. We we allowed to shoot each other with Nerf, but that’s it. You NEVER pointed a toy gun at another person. Guns are tools for killing, and pretending to kill each other was not ok. I am still very uncomfortable with people pointing toy guns at me – most of our ‘games with guns’ games involved us shooting monsters, etc, not each other.

      That said, OP, I am totally behind you. My house will probably have toy guns and swords when kiddos arrive, but I completely support your choice to avoid them as much as possible. I think you have good reasons and I’d back you the whole way. Even though I’m pretty ‘pro-gun’ (I hunt for meat), I don’t think folks should try to undermine your decision. You’re doing what you think is best for your kid — amen to that.

    • I never had strict rules about toy weapons with my boys. We’ve allowed everything from Nerf foam dart guns to plastic pirate swords. However, the education behind being allowed to have these toys is a big deal for us, and has enabled our boys to be responsible with them. Now that they’re older, my eldest has a bow and arrow (only used at a target), and a collection of Airsoft and paintball guns. The latter two, while being designed to shoot at other players (wearing safety gear), usually are used by my son on targets. In fact, I was pleased to see my two older boys on a “rescue mission” as Navy Seals while playing in the back yard with these guns. I’m happy that I educated them enough and they know that the good guys need weaponry too, and that they want to be the good guys. My oldest wants to be a cop.

      • I find it fascinating that your oldest wants to be a cop… I find most kids today don’t want to be police officers. What was once an honorable profession is now something looked down on by many people. Good to see that this isn’t the case all the time!

    • I absolutely see your point, Aiko. The toy weapon ban in our home isn’t based on the idea that kids (or adults) would never be able to use them in a nonviolent or reasonable manner.

      But yes, my main point is that we all have these things that are especially important to us as parents, and attempts at taking a stand on values shouldn’t be ridiculed by anyone.

      I also grew up in a house with guns, my father is a police officer. And I think that he, like a lot of people who have had to shoot another person, was always very uncomfortable with his kids pretending to do so. There was no outright banishment of this kind of play when I was a kid, but in hindsight I can see how we were gently steered away from it (like, “Hey, anyone want to go do this other thing…?”) I actually hadn’t thought of this until now, that this is a piece of parenting that I may have carried over from my own childhood.

  12. Like aikoaiko and blue, I grew up in a home with rifles and handguns. They were not accessible to my siblings and I, and as soon as we were old enough (usually around 7 or 8), my dad taught us the basics of how to shoot and handle them safely.

    The we were absolutely DRILLED with the fact that guns are never, ever for play. They are very serious things that can do a great deal of harm when treated casually. We were never allowed to play with toy guns (except squirt guns), and were not even allowed to point our fingers like guns. We knew for a certainty that guns were serious and they were not toys. Not ever.

    I appreciate the OP’s post. Like I said, I grew up in a house free of toy guns, and our house is free of them too. I tell kids who visit our house (if they point something like it is a gun) that we do not play guns in our home, and they are not allowed to either.

    My husband is a law enforcement officer, and we have guns in the safe at our house. Our daughter will be taught like I was.

  13. My parents didn’t allow toy weapons in the house… which meant that when some of our friends came over, they would literally leave piles of plastic weapons on the porch. It was like an old west saloon or something.

    I love the values and acceptance of varied parenting styles in this post, and 99% agree with reasons behind this stance on toy weapons. My 1% of doubt is about squirt guns, though. I really like water fights, and can’t see myself not having water fights with my as-yet-unborn children… Anyone else have this dilemma?

    • use squirty washing up liquid bottles, water balloons and wet sponges instead?
      we didn’t own any water guns as kids yet still managed to have the HUGEST water fights!

    • Your local pool store should have what are sometimes called “water cannons”. It looks like a cut off piece of a pool noodle, and it has a plunger inside (like a tampon aplicator, LOL). They don’t look anything like a gun and shoot the water much, much further than a squirt gun. And they float if you have a pool. If not, just keep a bucket of water handy to refill it!

  14. I’m really glad I read this post since I am usually one of those smirkers. The way the “no weapons” rule is explained in the post is very well-presented and balanced. Often times when someone presents this rule to me, it’s accompanied by some statement that implies their child will be better than children that played with weapons. It’s nice to read a post on this subject that does not follow this rule with “We feel that playing with weapons encourages children to become violent murderers…”

  15. I’ve taught in schools with a no toy gun policy- but what was I to do when a prep (4 yr old) child bit his sandwich into the shape of a gun to play at eating time? On the bright side- he was very inventive and great at problem-solving!

  16. Huh. Like someone else said, I was raised in a house with guns, but I rarely ever thought about them on a daily basis. My father is a Civil War buff and very occasional hunter. The hunting rifles were always locked up. The Civil War muskets weren’t, but the ammo was. That said, it truly would have been a miracle if two completely uninterested daughters figured out how to load big lead balls into antique muskets with muzzle loaders and gunpowder poured from an old sheephorn into a piece of paper and wadded down into the barrel of the gun with a metal thingy and then accidentally shot each other with them. We were in much greater danger of passing out from heatstroke wearing hoopskirts in Gettsyburg on the Fourth of July.

    On the other hand, I, too, was taught to respect guns. “Every gun is loaded until you know it’s not;” that kind of thing. It’s a lot like learning to swim in the ocean. Both powerful, both alternately safe or deadly depending on the circumstances, so always use common sense.

    I suppose Civil War re-enacting is the ultimate form of violent play, but it was also about history and civil rights. It was the ultimate “teachable moment” for my dad who had a long career teaching high school. Our visits to battlefields were always educational and usually boring, though I remember when I realized that the final death toll on 9/11 was only a fraction of the lives lost during the first day of the Battle of Antietam, so I suppose those lessons stuck with me more than I thought they would when I was 8.

    We never had toy guns, though, because, well, guns weren’t for playing around with. The re-enacting didn’t feel like we were being exposed to violence, mostly because spectators were kept a safe distance away and, well, the average re-enactor guy isn’t a very realistic actor. That said, horror movies and slasher flicks like Nightmare on Elm Street were strictly verboten when I was growing up.

    Now, I didn’t have brothers, so maybe peer pressure or having kids (sons OR daughters) who asked for toy weapons would have played out differently at our house. My parents were committed to providing a balance of gendered and non-gender specific toys with an emphasis on enjoying and respecting nature, learning to play a musical instrument, caring responsibly for a menagerie of animals and a recreational philosophy that boiled down to: “Go outside and play with the neighbor kids. Be nice.”

    As for giving toy weapons as gifts for children, I just don’t. There are too many other fun, cool things to give without trivializing real weapons or potentially infringing on friends’ and relatives’ values. On the other hand, I sat at my niece’s first birthday party and watched my 3-year-old nephew’s friend use a Home Depot branded toy chainsaw to pretend to hack my husband’s legs off while he was gently wrestling with our nephew and others.

    It was disturbing. The boy weaponized a toy in a way 3-year-olds shouldn’t know how to do, and guns didn’t have anything to do with it. I worry about that kid.

  17. Very interesting post.

    My son plays with toy guns. I was kind of anti-this when he was younger but the anti-ness has lessened over time. To be honest I don’t have strong feelings either way.

    We are in Australia, where culturally guns don’t feature much at all- they are pretty much a ‘farmer’s tool’ I guess, and pretty much nobody I know owns a gun in the city except the cops and armoured guards.

    I wonder if the fact that guns are so NOT a feature of our everyday lives makes the toy gun less of an issue where I live? My perception of the US is that guns, the real ones, feature more prominently in people’s lives. I wonder if the real threat they present when part of a culture makes it seem less palatable to some people to use them as a plaything?

    Some of my friends allows toy guns, some don’t, but it is not something people seem to feel that strongly about – unlike recycling and organic food, which is way more likley to be a strong point of contention where I live!

  18. Honestly, I think a lot of the toy weapon thing comes from an over exposure to mass media & movies/cartoons kids are really too young to grasp. I think kids can play with toy weapons and they can be treated as any other toys like toy cars, toy tool sets & toy soldiers without being violent. To me it seems the problem is that the kids see guns used in inappropriate ways & they model their play on what they saw on T.V. or on a movie.

    I don’t think toy weapons are bad per se, but if a child sees the gun used in a movie to kill someone, then that’s what he’s going to do with his toy gun. If the kids are not expose to violence to begin with, it’s not an issue.

    We’ve never had a ban on toy guns in our house & it doesn’t bother me if she does play with them, because I monitor what she watches. We don’t have T.V. at all & we are very selective about the movies she sees. We don’t allow her to see violent movies period.

    I know that at some point she will see a violent movie. But by that time she’ll be older & we can have a logical and intelligent discussion about weapons.

  19. Another great post Rod! I feel the same about guns, Disney Princesses and McDonald’s. I know I can’t keep these things out of my daughter’s life forever but if I can teach her good values (guns have their place, girls can be strong without having a prince to save them, and that fast food is a treat not a way of life) then I think that is hugely important. Thank you once again for so eloquently saying what I can’t

  20. I’d love to see a post on the flip side. We have handguns, rifles, knives, and swords in our house in addition to toy weapons. Our children are taught weaponry safety and allowed to handle weapons under our supervision. We teach them to respect weapons and to avoid injury. Weapons are a TOOL–for what the holder decides. Weapons do not equal death to our family. While I respect the author’s views, I think that parents can do their children injustice by making weapons taboo (therefore more enticing) and not teaching proper safety. I think it is better to educate your children correctly than to have the world do it for you incorrectly.

    • One of the reasons I don’t try to shield our kids from weapons altogether, and just keep them out of our home, is to avoid making weapons this big, shiny desirable thing by constantly taking them away and freaking out when they are around.

  21. As the mom of two teen boys, 13 & almost 15, I can honestly say it doesn’t matter at all if you feed or don’t feed your kid organic or don’t allow them to play with pretend weapons or let them watch rated R movies. It’s teaching them right from wrong and loving them that matters.

    As I spent yesterday dyeing my son’s hair stripey, while he went back and forth playing violent video games-in between colors, I got more hugs, kisses and “you’re the best mom in the world”. There’s a difference between reality and make believe. Does he want to see the new Saw movie for his birthday…Yes. Would he want to be in a war and shoot a person dead…No.

    My almost 15 year old told me he likes seeing old people still married and holding hands. How sweet is that? You know why? Because he knows how much in love his parents are so he knows that’ll be us. Did we own every new nerf gun that came out? Heck yeah. Did it matter? Obviously not.

    • Love is definitely of the utmost importance over nearly any parenting issue I can think of, but I don’t think I can agree that I should let things go on in my home that are contrary to my values.

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