Common Sense Guidelines for Gun Play

Photo by jesiehart via Flickr
Photo by jesiehart via Flickr

If you have boys, you can safely assume that, at some point, they will play with guns.

If your boys happen to be young — say, under the age of two — you may be vigorously disagreeing with me right now. You might be thinking, My boys will never play with guns! 

I have news for you: they will. If your son is an American boy child, at some point, he will point his index finger and make a shooting sound. He’ll probably chew a piece of food into a gun shape, or use a found object (a stick, an old toy phone) as a gun.

If you’re very anti-gun and anti-gun play, he’ll do these things when you aren’t looking. And while that might make you feel a bit more comfortable, the truth is that you can’t afford to ignore your son’s fascination with weapons and guns — not because gun play increases the risk of violence, but because we live in a society that’s increasingly intolerant of gun play. 

The research has consistently shown that playing with pretend weapons, including guns, is  perfectly normal and not at all harmful. In fact, playing “guns” and “war” may help children learn how to relate to others and how to self-regulate. (Of course, kids don’t need to play with pretend guns to learn these things. The point is that playing guns has never been proven to be detrimental to development, and, for some kids anyway, toy guns may be tools they use to learn and explore the world.)

But playing with guns is a risky proposition in today’s America. Earlier this year, a 7-year-old was suspended from school for chewing his PopTart into the shape of a gun and saying “bang!” And now, two 7th grade boys in Virginia Beach have been suspended from school — for a whole year — for firing Airsoft guns while on private property. (At this point, it’s a bit unclear if any of the Airsoft pellets hit kids who were standing at a nearby school bus stop.) In our increasingly wary society, gun play is no longer viewed as harmless; boys with guns, of any kind, are at considered a threat and may face serious, real-world consequences as a result of their play. 

It’s up to us to help us our boys understand and manage the risk involved with gun play. As a parent, I believe it’s my job to let my sons know:

  • Why gun play makes some people deeply uncomfortable
  • When and where and what kind of guy play is OK
  • How they should respond if someone expresses a concern

I have no problem with my sons playing with Airsoft guns. Collectively, they own an arsenal worth of Airsoft weapons, and thankfully, my boys hang out with other kids whose parents also approve of Airsoft play, provided certain safety rules are followed.

My responsibility doesn’t end there, though. Boys, I believe, need to know exactly why adults are so concerned about kids and weapons. They need to know that no one wants kids (or adults) shot unnecessarily,and that everyone is working to prevent the next school or playground shooting. They need to know that people are hyper-alert to the threat of violence right now, and that not everyone knows, at a glance, the difference between a toy gun and a harmless gun. They need to know that they can be absolutely within their rights and following all of the rules of their school, home and community, and still come under suspicion. And they need to know how to balance their right to free play with the community’s desire for safety.

That’s why my boys must abide by these common sense rules for gun play:

  • Orange plastic tips must remain in place on all realistic-looking weapons
  • If anyone expresses discomfort with gun play, the play must stop instantly
  • Airsoft weapons and realistic-looking guns may not be carried in plain sight and must never go to school
  • No playing with airsoft guns or other realistic-looking runs in public sight. At my house, that means Airsoft play is restricted to the garage attic.
  • If school, local or law enforcement authorities question your play, stop immediately and treat the authorities with respect. It’s OK to ask to contact your parents before answering any questions.

Like it or not, our boys live in a culture that’s quick to criminalize what may be perfectly normal and legal behavior. Part of my job as a parent is to help my sons learn how to function in that society. I can (and will) advocate for the acceptance of harmless behavior. But at the same time, I will teach my sons how to handle society’s fears and frustrations. I will equip them to mitigate risk, by showing them ways to explore their interests without unnecessarily alarming other people. I will not let their interest in pretending guns derail their future.

How do you help your sons balance their interest in weapons with society’s fear of guns? Do you have any common sense guidelines to add to my list?


The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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5 Responses

  1. Gun play and other defense/attack games are one of the ways our children learn to assert themselves. They pretend they can protect the people and things, which are important to them, and this helps increase their sense of self-assurance.

    They gain an awful lot of reassurance that the ‘good guys’ always win and this makes them feel safe.

  2. Although I understand the gist of your column, I do have a problem with “If anyone expresses discomfort with gun play, the play must stop instantly.”

    Would you say the same thing if they were tossing a baseball back and forth and someone asked them to stop because they were uncomfortable with it?

    By stopping “play,” just because someone else is uncomfortable with what you are doing, validates the other persons perspective. In this case that perspective is wrong. I can’t be responsible for others fears, ignorance and peccadilloes, it’s up to them to deal with their own problems, not mine.

    Teaching compassion for others feelings is one thing, teaching your boys to acquiesce to others unjustified fears and frustrations is another. I was taught that if I was in the right, to stand my ground, don’t allow yourself to be bullied. No pun intended, but specifically my Mom would say “Stick to your guns!”

    As we used to say when I was a kid… If you don’t like it you can lump it!

    1. Yes, I would say the same thing, Michael, and here’s why: I want my boys to respect others’ feelings and opinions as well. If one child is not comfortable with the play (whether the object of play is a basketball or a plastic gun),I’d ideally like that kid to comfortable expressing his discomfort, and I’d like the other kids to stop playing long enough to figure out a better way to handle things. Is the kid uncomfortable b/c the rules or teams don’t seem fair? It might be time for a quick re-negotiation. Is the kid just not comfortable with the game? If one kid is not, but the others are, maybe it’s time to move the game somewhere else.

      My other reason for telling them to “stop” is someone expresses discomfort is because I don’t want them to exacerbate the situation. If my kids are playing guns at recess, and a teacher asks them to stop, and they don’t, or they argue back, there’s a very good chance that my kids will get in more trouble — that they’ll be suspended, etc. Same thing re playing with Airsoft guns. My kids might be perfectly right, but if another adult sees them playing and asks them to stop, I want them to stop them, rather than risk the cops coming. I also want to hear about what happened. I’ll advocate for my kids’ right to play, and I’ll help them advocate for themselves, but I don’t want them to unwittingly end up in big trouble for playing.

  3. Thank you for this article. I have a weapons-loving seven year old which although has made me mildly uncomfortable in the past has never caused me any major concern. That is, until we moved to America. I have been trying to work out how to approach his interest in guns and his pretend play now that we live in a country where it is sadly not uncommon for people to be shot and horrifyingly where it is not uncommon to wake up to the news of a mass shooting. This article is a great help.

  4. My little guy loves nerf guns but in our city there’s tons of gun violence so he rarely goes outside with his guns.

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