By Jenny Knuth
Issue 139, November/December 2006
My husband, Greg, vividly remembers the “no weapons” policy at his preschool. It was 1970, the height of the Vietnam War, and his Montessori school was part of the counterculture. Another boy was playing next to him with a wholesome bowl of toy fruit as Greg pieced together a wooden map of the world, when “Bang!” Greg looked up to see that he’d been shot by the short end of a banana. Stunned, Greg grabbed the continent of North America. Holding Florida in one hand and Mexico in the other, he aimed Maine at the banana-wielder and shot back. Just at that moment, the teacher looked up and immediately sent Greg to sit in the corner. To the teacher, it looked like another act of American aggression, something to be nipped in the bud. To Greg, it was an innocent act of self-defense. More than 30 years later, we laugh, but at the time, he felt confused and misunderstood.
There is a gap between how adults see weapons play and how children experience it. As one psychiatrist put it, “We are so afraid of aggression in this society that we haven’t been able to talk intelligently about it.”1 While adults disapprove, children are often doing the child’s work of play: experimenting with power and excitement, action and reaction, in a safe, make-believe world. I remember a similar disconnect when my first-grade teacher asked us not to carry our dolls by their hair. “That hurts!” she would exclaim. Didn’t she understand that it was just pretend? I was genuinely sorry to upset her, but what was the big deal?
We flinch to see a doll carried by its hair because we don’t want our daughters doing that to their children. We don’t enjoy seeing our sons shooting each other, either. Toy guns are bad enough; real ones are unthinkable. Jessie, a children’s dance teacher and mother of two, sums up the tension many parents feel: “I question the need for violent play. I used to be totally against it because of my pacifist notions, but I do see that some kids—boys, especially—are attracted to weapons. I think it may actually be healthy for them to play it out. I worry that suppressing it would make it worse.”2 Parents are in a bind: It feels wrong to allow weapons play, and it feels wrong to forbid it.
As the mother of two boys, I struggle with this issue. For years I tried to avoid it, but when the “I’m a lover, not a fighter” line fell flat for the umpteenth time, I knew I needed a fresh approach. I read books and talked with parents and child-development experts. What I found surprised me: a healthy response to weapons play has little to do with restricting or forbidding and everything to do with engaging my children’s imaginations and connecting to their inner worlds.
A Natural Attraction
For the first two years of his life, my son was carefully shielded from weapons and images of violence. A visit to his great-grandmother’s house changed all that. In the small box of toys she’d set aside for young visitors, he found a tiny squirt gun. For days, he carried around this novel treasure. If he misplaced it, he’d ask, “Where’s my pointy thing?” He didn’t know its name, but he knew he wanted it.
Why do some children seem especially drawn to weapons? According to James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, children are instinctively drawn to power, and in our culture, weapons are one salient image of power.3 If not weapons, children might latch on to construction machines, dinosaurs, athletes, pop stars, or high-heeled shoes. And girls are no longer immune. Garbarino’s latest book, See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It, demonstrates that we need to pay attention to socializing girls’ aggressive tendencies as well.4
Because fashioning and playing with toy weapons seems a natural, nearly instinctive activity for some children—like the child of a pacifist who surprised his parents by biting his peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the shape of a gun—completely banning it can lead to resentment and harmful power struggles. How can we teach nonviolence and respect for weapons while still allowing war play?
Engage With Your Child
The first suggestion in Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s and Diane E. Levin’s latest book, The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, is: “Don’t panic!”5 A sudden, harsh response to weapons play can cause confusion, fear, or anger. Alternatively, a sharp response might trigger the lure of the forbidden. The best response is a gentle one: engage your children in their play, and work with, not against, their interests.
If you are disturbed by your child’s weapons play, it can help to see the play from the child’s perspective. Can’t imagine what they’re thinking? Ask them. Their answers to your open-ended questions can be quite revealing: What are you playing? How does it feel? What have you heard about that? Another step is to put the play in context and see what else is going on in the child’s life. Was he exposed to violence in the media? Is there some change or upheaval in her life? While it is important to protect children and not burden them with exposure to violence, it is also healthy for a child to process these natural issues through play.
Comic-book author and popular-culture historian Gerard Jones knows how to see through a kid’s eyes. His book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence can serve as an interpreter for adults.6 With real-life examples, Jones demonstrates how almost any make-believe violence that children are drawn to can be beneficial in the context of constructive adult attention. The harm comes, he argues, when children are left alone with their violent feelings, ignored, or shunned because of them. Wouldn’t it be nice if children felt able to work through their fantasies—even violent ones—in the context of the family, with healthy adult input?
Encourage Imaginative Weapons Play
Carlsson-Paige and Levin discuss a continuum of play, from the imaginative to the imitative. In imaginative play, children’s needs are being met: the play is initiated from within, they are in control, and they bring to their play the issues they need to work on. Imaginative play is essential to a child’s healthy growth and development.7
The problem is that media influence can undermine healthy, imaginative war play and move a child’s play toward the imitative end of the spectrum. Children are bombarded with brand-name characters with built-in personalities, plots, and product lines.8 As Garbarino points out, “GI Joe does not do gentle.”9 This scripted, “captured,” imitative play is like junk food: appealing, prepackaged, and heavily marketed. In imitative play, children are not in control and are not being nourished. While a few empty calories won’t hurt, children need to spend the bulk of their time engaged in healthy, imaginative play.
My second son was born in England, where knights and castles are part of the history and landscape. The boys loved exploring ruins and learning about shields, swords, catapults, and battering rams. I quickly realized that I couldn’t explain the history of England without discussing battles, and this exploration of conflict naturally flowed into imaginative storytelling—they created dramas of battles with beginnings, middles, and endings. While I wasn’t thrilled with the violent content of their games, it was creative, and they seemed nourished by it. Sometimes, in the heat of a mock battle, I would stop them, horrified, and ask, “Are you having fun?” “Yes!” would come the breathless reply.
Swords and knights are the first step. Most parents I spoke with agreed that sword fighting is one of the least offensive forms of weapons play. But it is a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? What about guns? Pokemon? Power Rangers?
Whether or not media influence is harmful is a hotly debated topic. Jones, for one, sees less negative impact from the media than do Carlsson-Paige and Levin, but he agrees with them that children need to be in control of their fantasies. Despite their differences, Jones, Carlsson-Paige, and Levin agree that, with encouragement, children can script their own fantasies, even in the face of “brand-name” characters and prepackaged plots. Jones, comfortable with media content, happily acts out a Power Rangers plot with his kindergartner as they morph into Teletubbies characters and evolve into a favorite creation they dub “Tubbie Rangers.”10 Carlsson-Paige, in contrast, resists media dominance and prefers to redirect the play. When her grandsons come over and want to play Power Rangers, she says, “Great! Okay! Here is a box. Let’s paint Power Rangers colors on it.” And they’ll craft a game of their own that is not part of any script. She strives to communicate to the children the message “Any kind of play is okay with me,” then engages them with the goal of keeping the play imaginative.11 “If I see [children] inventing new ideas and transforming what they’ve seen in the media in their play, I do all I can to support that.”12 Though the full impact of media influence is not clear, the consensus remains: whatever the content of the play, don’t dictate, but work through. Strive to move beyond imitation to imagination.
Develop Moral Understanding
According to well-known teacher and author Vivian Gussin Paley, imaginative play is the foundation of early-childhood learning and moral development. Children are naturally fascinated with “good guys” and “bad guys,” and they reenact dramas on moral themes. Such imaginative play is soothing and highly educational. It helps children order their world, feel safe, and construct meanings that they carry into their adult lives.13 As children tell their stories and enact their battles, watch how often the good guys win. And if they don’t win this time, well, usually some compromise is worked out, and there’s always next time. Robyn, a mother who has come to accept the interest her son, Max, has in weapons, reasons that “playing at being a Knight who Protects the Weak, Helps the Helpless, and Fights for Justice is a great way to practice some honorable real-world traits.” But she takes it beyond the simple black and white. “I believe it is one of my jobs as a parent to coach children . . . to [help them] look at their assumptions about morality. How do you know that person is a ‘bad guy’? What is the difference between being bad and being ugly? Can you be handsome and ‘bad’? Can you talk nice but do bad things? What if doing something ‘bad’ can help someone? Does everyone think the same person is ‘bad’? And so on.”14 Weapons play is one means to exercise moral understanding.
When he was an adolescent, my husband collected model tanks. You wouldn’t know it now. I am surprised to learn how much knowledge and information he absorbed about this topic, and I am not alone. Lisa, a mother of two, relates how her husband, “quite the pacifist now, used to be into army, cowboy, and police stuff. Every boyhood Christmas photo features him brandishing yet another weapon at the camera. Who knew?”15 Many gentle husbands and fathers were once imaginary barbarians conquering the world.
For young children, who often feel small and powerless, playing with pretend weapons can make them feel strong and in control. At a rest stop on the freeway, after hours cooped up in the car, my own boys invented an ingenious game. My older son would stand on a stone wall or a pillar, and my younger son would point his finger at his brother and shout “Peow! Peow!” His older brother, taking the cue, would comically and dramatically fall off the pillar, to his brother’s ecstatic giggles. The older had a captive audience, the younger had power. Again and again they replayed the drama: older brother the center of attention, younger brother in complete control, using only the tip of his finger. I was happy they were having so much fun and using so much energy, but I wasn’t thrilled with the game’s violent content. When a couple walked by and took more than a passing interest, I noticed the US Marine Corps logo on their hats and shirts. To them, fighting was more than a game. I shuddered to think of my boys participating in the dangers of real combat.
Still, it was a perfect pretend activity for that much-needed rest stop. They were getting exercise and fresh air, building agility and strength, and they were in control. It seems wrong somehow to deny our children, especially our sons, this sense of power and security they crave.
Teach Self-limiting Behavior
In the heat of battle, children get immediate feedback: there is an action and a reaction. As Max’s mother, Robyn, points out, “Using swords for hand-to-hand combat may not be a pacifist practice, but it allows [a child] to look [an] opponent (or playmate) in the eye and have some real conversations, too.”16 Children who regularly wrestle or mock sword fight tend to know their limits and learn how to hold back. And play wrestling can be a great leveler, emboldening the timid and teaching the more aggressive to control their impulses. “Mock wrestling is a very effective socialization technique,” agrees Garbarino.17 If you watch puppies or kittens play fighting, they might appear vicious, but there are limits. Like young animals, our children can learn valuable lessons from wrestling and mock battles.
I find it hard, however, to watch kids or kittens play fighting, so I was interested to learn of evidence that some adult women have trouble distinguishing play fighting from real fighting.18 If, like me, you often wonder if fighting is play or real, by all means, stop the game and ask.
Open Doors to Your Child’s Fantasy World
Allowing play with toy weapons keeps you in the loop of your child’s relationship to violence. As Levin admits, “Talking with children about violence is rarely easy, but it is one of our most powerful tools.”19 By understanding a child’s feelings of security and insecurity and allowing safe, pretend ways to work with these feelings, you can watch your child develop. If this kind of play is repressed or hidden or done only at friends’ houses, you won’t know where you stand. If your child shows imagination, empathy, and limit-setting behaviors in mock battles, great. If not, then you know what to work on. In short, if you let children express themselves naturally, you will know them better.
Jessie, the pacifist mother conflicted about the need for violent play, remembers stories of grown men raised in households that prohibited weapons play. “The men stated they felt judged when their parents did not allow them to play with war toys. They felt ashamed of this side of themselves even though they thought the play was pretty innocent. The playing was better than real fighting. This had a huge impact on me. I don’t want my son to feel ashamed of his instincts or think that we love him less because he likes to play with weapons.”20
Jones agrees that much of the problem with weapons play is caused not by the play itself but by grown-ups’ responses to it. Responding with anger, anxiety, or apathy models emotions we don’t want our children to emulate. Worry is not as helpful as trying to understand the play from the child’s point of view. To children, it might look as if the adults are confusing fantasy and reality. According to Jones, the best response is an appropriately playful one: “Much has been written about the most effective responses to children’s desire to play at violence. Most of them involve discussions of the reality of violence and making children aware of other kinds of play. Those aren’t bad ideas. But the most essential response of all is the one kids are looking for: grab your chest and fall down dead.”21 Hopefully, by keeping weapons play fun, safe, and well- expressed, your children can experience it as children. It will not be mysterious, forbidden fruit for them to explore when they are older or away from home. Fulfilling their desire when they are young, and sharing their play with them, will allow them to move beyond violence later.
Unhealthy Weapons Play
Despite these benefits, war play has a potential downside. The argument against toy weapons is usually that it encourages aggression and reduces the reality of violence to a fun game. However logical this seems, little evidence supports the notion that play with toy weapons alone encourages later violence.
Teacher and scholar Penny Holland, author of We Don’t Play With Guns Here, believes that the zero-tolerance approach to toy weapons came out of the feminist and pacifist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Girls tend to have less interest in war play, and most preschool teachers are women, who tend not to understand the psychology and importance of war play to boys. In her studies, Holland found that allowing war play, within limits, actually made a more peaceful preschool environment. Those boys drawn to war play were not told how “bad” their desires were, were more engaged, and because they were allowed expression of their interest, weren’t given the self-fulfilling label of “bad boy.”22
Garbarino, on the other hand, feels that violence is epidemic in this country and its damaging effects analogous to those of smoking. Not everyone who smokes suffers health consequences, but over the entire population, the detrimental effects are clear. His evidence? “It is rare for children who are not exposed to violence to become aggressive.” While he wouldn’t encourage or initiate war play, if he noticed a child’s interest in it, he would pay attention to it, work with it, and try to redirect it.23
Robyn, parent of two, voices another fear of many parents when she says, “I dread that my son’s attraction to guns will tempt him to play with real guns at some time without supervision in a friend’s or neighbor’s house.” This risk causes some parents to ask before a play date if there are any weapons in the house. Robyn prefers to give Max the skills he needs to avoid an accident. “We occasionally talk about what to do if he finds a gun at a friend’s house: even if he thinks it is a toy gun, he shouldn’t play with it without an adult’s permission.”24 Another helpful rule, hard to enforce but easy for kids to remember, is never to aim a gun of any kind at people.
Recent school violence has focused attention on the issue of children and weapons. The straightforward logic is that it is much easier for a child who is used to firing a toy weapon to fire a real weapon. Jones argues against such a simplistic line of cause and effect. “Despite the decades-long efforts of many researchers, no causal correlation has been found between actual gun use and early-childhood fondness for toy guns, finger-shooting, or gun-filled TV shows.”25 Research shows that it’s not the kids who are interested in toy weapons who become violent. Rather, it’s the children who are bullied, who grow up in households where guns are used, who live in areas where guns are part of the youth culture, and who feel estranged and alone who are more likely to go on to use real guns.26 According to Jones, the antidote to the epidemic of violence is interested, involved adults who affirm a child’s fantasies, model nonaggressive behavior, and mentor a child’s skills and interests.27
Is it disturbing to adults when children play with toy weapons? Yes. Is the play often boisterous and disruptive? Yes. Should we forbid it outright? Only if we want to create more battles. We can try an all-out ban, but Deanne’s experience with her sons is typical: “I started out not allowing them to play with guns. The more I tried to limit toy guns, the more they became an object of desire for my children. Once I let the issue go, they stopped begging for them and cut down how much they played with them.”28 Or, as Lisa puts it, “It’s just impossible to play tug-of-war when you let go of your end of the rope.”29 As Jones sums up, “children deserve an adult world of nonviolence and well-modulated aggression, and a childhood world of fantasy unburdened by adult fears.”30
While it is up to you to decide whether to discourage, tolerate, or encourage play with toy weapons, it is helpful to understand why your children are doing this and how, if encouraged in healthy ways, it can help them grow. Whether you allow or forbid toy weapons is less important than engaging your children’s imaginations and giving them the tools they need to moderate their own feelings of aggression. For many children, pretend weapons play is one way they can process their fears, feel safe, and experiment with self-defense. By keeping it light, keeping it in the realm of pretend, setting clear limits, and watching for the warning signs, you need not fear or repress this natural phase.
No matter how hard you try to avoid it, children will make weapons, whether from a banana or a wooden puzzle piece. Instead of an outright ban in your home and the resultant battles over weapons, relax, incorporate some of the above ideas, and find your path to peace.
1. Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (New York: Basic Books, 2002): 8.
2. Jessie Levey, personal communication (27 October 2005).
3. James Garbarino, personal communication (21 February 2006).
5. Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 2005): 98.
6. See Note 1.
7. See Note 5: 30.
8. See Note 5.
9. See Note 3.
10. See Note 1: 21.
11. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, personal communication (10 February 2006).
12. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, personal communication (29 March 2006).
13. Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
14. Robyn Churchill Rathweg, personal communication (24 October 2005).
15. Lisa Gillespie, personal communication (25 October 2005).
16. See Note 14.
17. See Note 3.
18. Brian Sutton-Smith, in Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: 78 (see Note 1). In a laboratory study, when children and adults watched videos of preschoolers play fighting, the children and adult men declared on average that 2 of the 14 tapes showed real fighting. For adult women, the average was 8.
19. Diane Levin, “Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times,” Young Children 58, no. 3 (May 2003): 60–64.
20. See Note 2.
21. See Note 1: 63.
22. Penny Holland, We Don’t Play With Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2003).
23. See Note 3.
24. See Note 14.
25. See Note 1: 55.
26. James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).
27. See Note 1: 183.
28. Deanne Durfee, personal communication (25 October 2005).
29. See Note 15.
30. See Note 1: 56.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Garbarino, James. Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. Anchor Books, 2000.
Garbarino, James. See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It. Penguin Books, 2006.
Holland, Penny. We Don’t Play With Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years. Open University Press, 2003.
Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. Basic Books, 2002.
Levin, Diane E., and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, second edition. Teachers College Press, 2005.
Levin, Diane E., and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Who’s Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys. New Society Publishers, 1989.
Paley, Vivian Gussin. A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Talking With Kids about War and Violence. www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/war/.
Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment. www.truceteachers.org.
Jenny Knuth is a writer and full-time mother. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Greg, and their two sons, Rees (8) and Kadin (5). Exuberant games of “Attack Daddy!” and the like continue to teach her about a warrior’s path to peace. More of Jenny’s observations about life and parenting can be found at http://jeninco.blogspot.com.
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