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Go Ahead and Shoot

My kids brought home two red plastic water guns from our most recent visit to their grandmother’s house. These little pistols are old school, the way I remember them from childhood: detailed to look realistic, fitting snugly into a small hand. When my three year old son Gabriel first saw them, his eyes sparkled. “Mama. That is a gun,” he said, the same way I might have said ‘that is a diamond’ or ‘that is a tropical island’ if either of those treasures were ever presented to me.

Previously, we had a single water gun that drifted around the backyard. One of the kids found it in the bushes months ago. Space age in design, it doesn’t really resemble weaponry, and the trigger doesn’t work, so it’s not exactly a favorite. We have a soft sword that is part of a knight’s costume, and my son regularly builds spears from Legos and Tinker Toys. Gabriel has to invent a mediating story to turn a Tinker Toy structure into a shooting machine. When aggressive fantasies are firmly embedded in creative play, they seem like healthy and positive expressions. Swishing a stick through the air to impale an imaginary dragon? Sure! Why not?

But when I saw how Gabriel looked at those guns, our lack of a clear family policy on aggressive creative play suddenly felt like a problem. Confronted with an attractive toy that looks like a gun, feels like a gun, and is called a gun, I felt very uncomfortable. Gabriel doesn’t understand violence, or the fact that guns kill people; he certainly doesn’t desire that anyone be hurt. On the other hand, might running around the backyard in hot pursuit of other kids with a water gun in hand, gleefully shouting I’m going to get you! or even I’m going to kill you! make all weapons somehow more acceptable? In short, could water guns be gateway toys that open the door to more truly violent play?

I’d come up with no resolutions this morning when Gabriel appeared on the back deck with a water gun in hand, asking me to help him fill it. He hadn’t experienced shooting yet. Still conflicted, I made my way across wet grass, from the clothesline to the deck, to show him how: first pull the white plastic plug out, turn on the faucet of the rain barrel, then hold the opening underneath to fill the toy slowly with water. He carefully replaced the plug, then pointed the gun at my forehead with a big grin on his face.

Mama, I’m going to get you!!

I headed instinctively into the yard, dodging streams of water that just barely missed me. It’s hard not to laugh, yelp, and run when a water gun is aimed at your back. I instantly remembered deep in my body the feeling of shooting and being shot by water guns as a child, running with bare feet on prickly dry summer grass. It is so fun!  And it was so fun this morning! In the thrill of the game, I forgot all my qualms. And when I told Gabriel it was time for me to finish hanging the laundry, he looked down at his water gun for a thoughtful moment, then looked back up at me and asked, “Are any of the plants in the garden thirsty? I could give them a drink with my watering gun!”

So I sent him to the garden, and watched out of the corner of my eye as he enthusiastically squirted bright zinnias and baby fuzzy melons. We had to fill his gun back up twice. He asked if he could water the blueberry bushes, because didn’t they look thirsty too? I watched him, serious and thorough in the new task he’d set out for himself (quenching the thirst of a yard-full of plants in 95 degree weather is no easy proposition). The gun was an effective prop for his caregiving fantasies, just as it had been for his aggressive, power-wielding fantasies.

I’m glad I didn’t come up with any hard rules about toy guns in our house. While I was considering the problem, Gabriel reminded me that no matter what the game or toy is, his imagination is engaged. All the rich, varied parts of him will find expression one way or another in open, creative play. Sometimes gentle guidance is called for, but sometimes – perhaps more often than I realize – stepping aside and getting out of the way is the best thing we can do for our kids.

What about you? Do you have an approach to handling imaginary violent play in your family?

I’d love to read your thoughts here, or at my blog, Homemade Time, where you can find more reflections on motherhood.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

Comments (10)

I grew up in a home where playing with toy guns was unacceptable, I didn't like it then but I came to begin understanding it when my brothers best friend died at 14 because he and some friends decided to play russian roulette with what they thought was an empty gun. The day James died was a horrible day, I was around 9 and the grief was intense to say the least, I'd lost a couple pets but nothing compared to the reality that a person I just talked with the day before was now GONE. I never looked at a toy gun with desire again, from there on out they were unacceptable in my book as well. Fast forward to parenthood, I'm raising my children (7,3,1.5) with the knowledge of what guns really do, my son who is 7 has had a full understanding of it since he was 4, I shared with him what happened to James and point out that guns are NOT toys, they do kill people. He has some friends who play with toy guns, in fact his cousin who he is very close to plays with them and he informs each of these children that he is not allowed to play with these toys because guns are dangerous. I found it quite horrifying to see two of these children take their hand, form it into a gun, point it at my son's head and make the noise of a gun going off. You can think I'm just being overprotective because of what happened in my life but has anyone sat back and thought about how are nation is the most aggressive it has EVER been, considering all the school shootings, violent games, etc. Children are being taught how to use guns (in a sense) without seeing the ramifications of what using a gun causes. People used to take children hunting, these children had a great respect for guns because they were never treated as toys and they saw the animals die from those guns. Seems to me that parents need to be more vigilant in teaching children how dangerous guns are so that we can avoid more senseless death in the future.
Meagan, I can definitely relate. I have a 3-y-o daughter, who has never shown any interest in guns (certainly not the way little boys tend to), but she loves to take sticks around the garden in search of "witches" (lots of fairy tales in our house lately!) She likes to say "If you see any bad guys you tell me." We have never spoken of "bad guys" at our house - how would she know? Who knows. But I agree that imaginary play is excellent and also a great window into our little one's minds. The only rule we have is that you can't point the "stick" (or gun) at another person (or pet), because it's not okay to hurt others. But if my daughter feels empowered by defending herself against imagined bad guys, that's okay with me. If we had boys engaged in lots of gun play, that would probably require a more proactive approach. I think what you did was fine. Besides, if you forbid anything or make it too big of a deal, it's all the more attractive. Okay, sorry for the rambly response! ;)
I have 2 boys, 7 and 3. They are aware of the prohibition on guns and swords in our house yet they try and sneak in a gun made out of legos and were so happy when their uncle bought them nerf guns for Christmas (unbeknownst of my rules) but i often wonder if their fascination with guns will grow more because we don't allow guns in the house or any kind of gun play. We take each "play gun encounter" as it comes.
It seems inevitable that kids will play good guy vs. bad guy games. Now that my 3 yr old has discovered superheroes, that's all he wants to play. It's hard for me to know how to respond. He doesn't always like to play with me cause I try to make everybody get along and be friends, lol. I'm starting to loosen up and not have a such a problem with magic and fantasy fighting (like superheroes and witches). I believe it can be empowering and imaginative. (i'm also learning that many boys have inate aggression and need outlets) But I'm never going to be ok with more realistic violence. With so many real atrocities in the world, how can I let violence be play? I want my son to always respect guns for what they really are. Bottom line, guns are not toys!! I'm sure he will end up playing with another toy as a gun and that we will have a big discussion about it. I don't want him to have any illusions about weapons and what they're used for; killing. Whether it's hunting or self-defense or something sinister, the end result is the same and death isn't play. (don't even get me started on some of these video games that literally teach people how to be sharpshooters. The ones in first person perspective are so desensitizing, it's scary!)
We do not put special emphasis on anything. Our children will learn about guns, learn not to point them at people and when older, learn how to clean, carry and use one safely and properly. As a child, guns held no fascination for me b/c they were a normal part of life and I was encouraged to learn what they were and what they could do. I had no desire to unlock my dad's safe and misuse a gun. I imagine that desire comes from the very prohibition people bring into their homes. This is definitely one of the hottest topics out there when it comes to parenting, however, so I won't be reading any replies lol! :) I know most parents nowadays strongly disagree with me. Oh, and you know what, this reminds me of alcohol, too. My best friend grew up in a house that prohibited alcohol. She was never allowed to touch it, such as to bring a beer to her dad. She was drilled on the dangers of it and told to stay away from it. I wasn't surprised at how many times I saved her drunk teenage butt growing up.
Sara, I know. My daughter never spoke of bad guys or "getting" anyone at that age, but my son has been for about a year now (he's 3.5) and it seemed to come out of the air. (Though he did start in a home-based day care 2 days/wk that is mostly 2 - 4 yr old boys who DO watch more videos etc so that definitely reinforced things). I think it's a great thing that your daughter goes after witches in the garden. If anything, I've come to reflect on my own discomfort being assertive through watching how naturally and easily my son expresses himself and physicalizes those fantasies about being powerful...I think I could have used a few rounds of hunting bad guys as a kid, because I often find it hard to express anger now. So. Our kids teach us so much!
Michal, I feel your same aversion to guns and realistic violent play. It's a day by day things around here. Those water guns were so different in their realism, it was a whole new level...we'll see how we decide to approach them in the long run. For now, it's just no pointing them at anyone's face. I do try to make sure any kind of 'getting the bad guys' play is embedded in an imaginary story (which, again, is not hard - it almost always is). THe superhero fascination started around here too, and I see how it is a positive thing for my kiddo in that he gets to feel powerful, competent, magical, and IN CHARGE (a rare feeling for a 3 year old!). We make up all kinds of superheroes these days, new funny names, new bad guys too (he's never seen any videos or movies about all this; a friend shared some comics recently, but that's all he has to go on). So it feels like a cool creative project that the rest of the family enjoys too, and my son gets to run around, kick the air, and wear a makeshift cape.
I shared my feelings about this topic not long ago here: http://halfdozenkids.blogspot.com/2011/06/sexy-pushed-on-kids-and-remembering-why.html
I grew up in Maine and hunting was a part of the autumn, just like the change of leaf color and cooler evening air. I was never allowed to have any kind of "toy" guns (water guns, etc.) - I was even scolded if I held my pointed fingers like a gun and pretended to "shoot" at my older brother. The rule in the house was you only shoot at something you are going to eat. Firearms were not a toy or something to be joked about. I feel that proper initiation into hunting/harvesting and respect for the true use of rifles and shotguns engenders young people to gain respect for guns and their practical use - as well as nature and wildlife.
Thank you so much for posting this! My son is only six months old but lately I've been preoccupied with the concept of weapons as toys... or toys as weapons. I'm still not sure how we'll navigate through that maze when we get there but hopefully we'll get through as gracefully as you and your kids!
Mothering › Child Articles › Go Ahead and Shoot