This blog post was prompted by a conversation I had recently with someone from within our Raising Play community. She expressed concern to me that her son had started to play with pretend guns after being exposed to this while with some extended family and was unsure how to navigate it within her parenting.

Gun play is likely a topic you may have considered within your own parenting journey. I am personally now in a place where I feel very comfortable with the boundaries I have around this sort of play, I will share these with you now.

Imagination is okay

I will personally not purchase my children toy guns, however I am comfortable with them using another item, such as a stick, and pretending that this is a gun.

My reasoning here is that I deeply believe that when using their imagination, play is a process that flows through our children. In doing so, allowing them to play out something they need to explore, understand or express.

Some toy guns are so realistic that it can start to blur the line between play and reality for some children. This study found a positive relationship between toy guns and children displaying aggressive behaviours outside of play. Leonard Berkowitz proposed the theory that aggressive behaviours are not innate but instead learnt and influenced through the presence of social cues or prompts within our environment that normalise the behaviour. This comprehensive study observed more aggressive behaviours in children who were exposed to violent toys which supports this theory. Without the presence of a toy gun to prompt these behaviours, it is still possible children will engage in pretend play aggression more generally. This could be through rough and tumble play, ‘good guy, bay guy’ games, the use of imaginary weapons or otherwise. There is a large evidence base for the therapeutic value of this sort of play, including rough and tumble play as cited in this study.

Consider the underlying need

Our goal should always be to look beyond the behaviour.  For the child wanting to play with guns, this could be purely explorative after recently being exposed to guns in some capacity, seeking boundaries around safety, to explore the idea of protection or an unmet need for power and control.

The need for power is a very valid one, especially for children as they largely live in a world where the dominant narrative is held by adults. There are lots of ways to meet the need for power within the realms of play, this is something we discuss further within Raising Play however I will note that expressing themes of aggression in play is normal and healthy. It does not increase the likelihood that your child will be aggressive outside of the play – in fact it decreases the likelihood.

You can support your child through this by playing a power-reversal game with your child. This is where you pretend to be weaker and promote laughter. For more on this, visit our support services over at Childhood Rising.

Create boundaries

Such play is an opportunity for shared learning and to reinforce boundaries to ensure the physical and emotional safety of everyone. It is important to always refer back to your family values as an anchor when considering any boundaries.

In terms of gun play, we have the following boundaries in our home:

  • The play must be consensual. The ‘gun’ can only be pointed at people who are in the game – there needs to be mutual consent and this rule applies to any animals too.
  • If someone says no or that they aren’t playing anymore, you must stop.
  • The pretend ‘gun’ must not be pointed at someone’s face.

If the boundaries are not respected, I start by reminding my child of the boundaries. If such boundaries continue to be ignored, then the stick or item being used as a gun is removed. While I am not one for using punishment in my parenting, the removal of the stick serves the purpose of keeping everyone physically and emotionally safe, which is a paramount message to be modelling to our children.

Having a conversation and some boundaries around gun play is important. Regardless of whether my child initiates the play or not, it is very likely they will be exposed to gun play with peers, at school or somewhere outside of my direct supervision – and when that happens I want them to feel able to speak up for their own needs for consent and safety too.

A few final words

I also think there is another layer here in terms of privilege. Guns have been at the centre of many a trauma in some communities, especially some of our marginalised or BIPOC communities. I will not speak to this too deeply simply as a person of privilege myself, this is not my story to tell. But I do think we need to be aware of how purchasing a toy gun for our child and not fearing for their safety in doing so, is a reflection of inequality and privilege.

Furthermore, guns and/or weapons may be viewed differently depending on the cultural and social context of that child’s environment and thus what they have been exposed to. Boundaries and limits around such play should always be in consideration of each child’s unique context and unfolding, as well as the value and belief system of the parent or carer.

For more support on navigating play in a way that supports the needs of the whole child, join the waitlist Raising Play so that you are the first to know when the doors next open!

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