When my husband was growing up, the only boy in a family of all girls, his mother didn't allow him to have any toy guns. He was a mild mannered, sweet little boy. But when he was five years old, he ran over to his friend's house and "borrowed" one of the toy guns he had played with over there and coveted, stashing it in his bedroom.
For years, every time I heard what has become a famous family story I sided with my mother-in-law. When my sons were babies I knew how our society viewed male aggression. Like other parents I knew, I had a keen desire to protect my boys, a certainty I could steer their play in the right direction, and a categorical abhorrence for violent toys of any kind. Their first toys were blocks, puzzles, and cooperative games. They were empathetic and kind boys. I felt no small triumph that my strategy had worked: my gentle sons didn't even know what weapons were.
Then my firstborn went to a birthday party. In the goodie bags for these four-year-olds was a plastic toy gun. My son was utterly riveted. I tried to coax it away from him. "Bang bang!" he shouted, running around with the other kids. Just days later my shy little two year old fixated upon a toy sword that came with a pirate toy someone had given him, and would not go anywhere without it. I could see that the ludicrously small sword made him feel brave. I tried (unsuccessfully) to pry it out of his tiny hands. That he liked the weapon so much deeply unnerved me.
When the boys were three and five we moved to Tokyo. At our kids' Japanese preschool, boys ran around playing all sorts of rough-and-tumble war games. Even more shocking to me at the time, the teachers were actually helping kids make their own weapons out of rolled up newspapers. My oldest came home day after day with his arms full of handmade pistols, rifles, and swords. He and his playmates ran around battling one another. Our Japanese public elementary school even gave out water guns to all the kids at a summer festival every year. Every single child got one—even three-year-old siblings. The first time I saw the kids screaming with laughter as they shot at each other over and over in the schoolyard, I was surprised by how the adults could be so blasé. They didn't just tolerate the play: the teachers and even the principal helped fill the kids' guns with water and ran around shooting and battling alongside their students. They actually encouraged the children, both boys and girls, to play with toy guns.
Their relaxed attitude undoubtedly has as much to do with cultural context as anything else: today in Japan, almost no one owns firearms and there are hardly any deaths by gun. But ever since living abroad in a society where young kids are allowed so many outlets for their energy, I have come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys' self-regulation is the way that aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight.
In contrast, in the U.S. we vilify children for even being interested in playing with guns. In the past six months alone, a little boy in Massachusetts was given detention and forced to write a letter of apology for having a tiny, Lego toy gun on a school bus; a five year old in Maryland was given ten days of suspension for having a toy gun at school, interrogated for so long he wet his pants in the principal's office; elementary school students in Washington were suspended for shooting off Nerf guns that their teacher had actually asked them to bring in for an experiment in probability; and in California, an elementary school announced a plan to "buy back" toy guns in exchange for books. Little boys bear the brunt of our panic over toy weapons, but girls are not immune either: a five-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was suspended from school and made to undergo psychiatric evaluation when she threatened to shoot a classmate with a toy Hello Kitty soap bubble gun—a toy she hadn't even brought to school.
We didn't always used to frown upon weapon play; children of the 1950s grew up steeped in television shows showing gun-toting heroes like the Lone Ranger, and toy soldiers and cowboy costumes were common playthings. But societal panic intensified in the wake of a spate of tragic school shootings in the 1990s, and a shift towards zero tolerance policies and regulating how children should play has been steadily increasing ever since. We've become so panicked about toy weapons that we are rewriting them out of our past. Jay Mechling, a professor at the University of California, Davis, recounts in The Journal of Play how surprised he was that an icon of postwar 1950s American childhood—the Daisy BB gun—was utterly absent, along with toy guns, when he visited the Strong National Museum of Play. The Daisy and toy replica guns had been nominated for inclusion in the museum's National Toy Hall of Fame multiple times, but protests against them by parents and teachers prevailed.* Toy guns were systematically being erased from the American cultural history of childhood.
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.
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.
There is no question that I'd rather have my sons read a book than play with a toy gun, and there is no easy answer when my Japanese friends wonder at the paradox of our banning gun play when we do not ban the guns that kill thousands of children and teens in the U.S. each year. Does the debatable benefit in banning the toys outweigh the harm in shaming young children for the imaginary play they're drawn to, giving them the message that they aren't good enough as they are, that their interests are wrong, and that their play isn't of value unless they play the way adults deem appropriate? My boys, now 12 and 10, love soccer, movies, and cooking. They watch over their two little sisters. When all four are playing together a favorite adventure game is good vs. bad guys: the three year old strides about, wielding a little gun to protect her older siblings from imaginary monsters peeking out of the closet. Aside from those games, neither boy is interested in guns that much anymore. Neither, for that matter, is their father.
*This section has been edited for clarity.