From Barbie dolls to action figures, the range of toys available to kids is expansive. But when a kid picks up a play gun from the toy aisle, parents may pause to question whether or not plastic versions of weapons are an appropriate toy for children.
Many kinds of toys have been critiqued for their implications on children, from the debate on whether or not boys should play with dolls to questions about how much video game time is too much. But in today's climate, just months after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., toy guns remain a hot topic of discussion. While some parents feel kids shouldn't be playing with toy weapons, others don't have a problem with it.
But is it OK for kids to play with toy guns? Should parents say "no" when kids ask for play guns? And is there a way to allow kids to play with toy guns while teaching them about the dangers of real-life gun violence?
Context is key
While kids playing with water guns at the beach may seem like a harmless summer activity, it's normal for parents to wonder if teaching kids to shoot one another is a good idea. Michelle Felder, a therapist, parenting coach and founder of Parenting Pathfinders, says in these situations, context is key. She recommends parents to take off their "grownup lens" and consider the thought process of a child when exploring the topic of toy guns.
"When kids play, they're working, they're processing, they're exploring and they're figuring things out," says Felder. "Through their play, children gain an understanding of their world, they get to have unlimited power and control, they make sense of things that don't make sense, they process things that are scary or upsetting and they gain mastery over these scary or upsetting things."
Parents weigh in
Marissa Baxter says she lets her 6-year-old son, Dakota, play with toy guns. But Jennifer Pavelchak, a mom of two, does not allow her kids to play with toy guns under any circumstances.
"Based on the rise of gun violence, I personally do not think that guns should ever be labeled, marketed or given to children as a toy," says Pavelchak. "Everyone has their own opinion, but as parents we have to do the best to protect our children in all possible ways and for me, it means no gun play."
Kenneth Miles is a dad and founder of online newsletter Trenton Journal. "I don't think guns should be replicated as toys other than water guns," he tells Yahoo Life. "We have a problem with gun violence in this country, and I think desensitization plays a part in some of it."
If a child plays with a toy gun, that doesn't mean they will become violent
Some parents worry that allowing their children to play with toy guns will lead to them being violent as they get older. However, Felder says available research shows there isn't a link between toy gun play and future violence.
"Playing with toy guns or any other pretend weapons won't make kids more violent or more inclined to act violently as adults," she says, "just like every child that pretends to be a train conductor, teacher, doctor or animal doesn't automatically grow up to be any of these things either."
In fact, violence in adolescence stems way beyond toy guns and more from "an individual's history, trauma, experience, mental health and behaviors," says Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of Winnie and Her Worries.
Toy gun play can prompt important conversations
While toy guns won't make kids violent, there's no denying that real gun violence exists. Patel says it's imperative to educate children about the difference between toy guns and real guns.
"Discussing what a gun is and the emotions of a real one is important," she says. "For example, why one would use a gun for safety and what happens if it gets in the hands of the wrong person. Also, what should your child do if they ever see a real gun? All of this should be discussed."
Pavelchak agrees, adding that she plans to have a conversation about real guns with her kids when they get a bit older and can better understand the subject matter.
"Teach children the rights and wrongs of using a gun," says Baxter. "If that's done, we might be better off."
Felder says it's important to make sure kids understand the implications of real guns compared to toy guns. "When kids shoot one another in their play, there's no real pain or repercussions and they bounce right back," she explains. "Real guns have consequences that are different than what children experience in cartoons and video games, and a young child's lack of understanding of the permanency of death makes these conversations about real guns even more crucial."
Toy guns and race
Miles believes it's naive to think race doesn't play a factor in whether or not parents allow their children to play with toy guns. "My race plays a large part in how I feel about kids playing with guns, because Blacks are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in this country," he says. "I live in a city where gun violence is high ... I'm not against guns, but I believe that people should handle them with care."
Felder points out that, although a Black child with a toy gun is no more or less of a threat than a white child with a toy gun, they may not be perceived in the same way. She believes the fault for this misperception is not in the child's skin tone, but in the effects of racism and the impact of systems of oppression that are at play in U.S. communities.
Talk to your pediatrician about whether or not guns are OK for your child
The decision to let a child play with a toy gun is ultimately up to their parents. If you don't want your children to play with toy guns, parenting experts recommend not keeping them in your home. It's also suggested to explain to kids why they aren't allowed to play with them, as sometimes not knowing why something is off limits can lead to even more curiosity and and a stronger desire to engage in that activity.
"Your child's pediatrician is a great resource when it comes to questions about normal behavior during play, and about child development in general," says Casares. "They can also help you navigate the tricky waters of allowing toy guns into your child's imaginary play world."
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