05 Dec Boys and Their Toys
What is it about boys and wheels?
My boys were born into this world with an innate fascination and near reverence for all things on wheels. This interest wasn’t something my husband and I actively encouraged or cultivated. Early on, the toys around our apartment were the standard, non-gender biased sort, which included an array of primary colored blocks, animals, musical instruments and puzzles.
Yet, whenever we were outside our home, the boys immediately gravitated towards cars, trucks and trains. The abundance of construction in New York City provided ample dump trucks, backhoes, cement mixers and cranes; a daily Disney World of happiness for the boys. Most exciting, were the ubiquitous firetrucks and police cars screaming down the city streets, sirens blaring. In fact, I’m pretty sure my older son’s first word, after “mama,” was “firetruck!” Both of my sons worshipped Firefighters and Police Officers and the men behind the controls of all of these powerful machines on wheels. Steadily, our toy and book collection became dominated by all things car and truck. Nevertheless, as far as we were concerned, the boys’ vehicular fascination, while predictable and stereotypical, was charming.
Then came the guns.
I guess we should have seen it coming, what with the spontaneous wheel obsession and all. However, my children didn’t watch cartoons or movies with guns or shooting. We didn’t have any toy guns in our home. They didn’t play video games of any sort. Yet, they loved the idea of guns. Adeptly fashioning weapons out of sticks from Central Park, my boys also assembled gun-shaped legos and yes, gun shapes were chewed out of chicken nuggets. Unlike the fascination with wheels, this attraction to weapons was not charming and, in fact, made us very uncomfortable. We felt the judging eyes of other parents in the playground when our boys would chase each other, pretending to shoot with their fingers. Although my children were laughing, having fun and certainly not hurting anyone, I felt as though, somehow, I must have failed. My children were, no doubt, destined for a life of crime.
Michael Thompson, child psychologist and author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” argues that it’s normal for boys to want to emulate male hero stereotypes (cowboys and policemen for example). Thompson further maintains that “aggressive play isn’t violence,” continuing to add that, “If two kids are attacking and hurting each other, adults should intervene. But if two kids are running through the house pretending to shoot each other, that’s play. And there is no scientific evidence linking childhood play with adult violence.”
Many articles have been written about the boy-child fascination with guns. Most experts agree that, in preschool aged children, there is no link between imaginary gun-play and a later tendency towards violence. In fact, evidence points to the contrary. According to an article in the Atlantic, “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… Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. 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. PBS Parents goes on to add that: “…Exposure to violence on TV or video games should be a greater concern to parents than gun play,” says Psychiatrist, Joshua Weiner. “Repeated exposure has been demonstrated in studies to desensitize kids to violence. It is important to limit this exposure, especially in younger kids.”
An article by British author and educator, Dianne Rich, states, “Children’s play themes involve big and serious issues which commonly include death, loss, loneliness, abandonment and being cared for or nursed. Weapon play certainly provides opportunities for these themes to be explored and also involves the common dominant theme in children’s play – namely power, and being in control or controlled by others.”
Dr. Michael Thompson also offered the following helpful suggestions when it comes to handling young children/boys and gunplay:
- Watch your words. Be cautious about criticizing boys’ form of play. At 4 and 5, a boy is his play, Thompson says. “Boys think, ‘If you don’t like my play, you don’t like me.'” As long as no one is getting hurt, allow a little roughhousing.
- Play it out. Banning the content of games won’t stop it, and often creates the allure of forbidden fruit. “They will eventually tire of the sameness [of their games] when it isn’t an ideological struggle with the adult world,” Thompson says.
- Take a stand. If your boys’ gunplay draws scrutiny from the neighbors, “You can say, ‘I don’t believe it’s good for boys to have adults always interfering with or dictating their play. We don’t do that to girls,'” Thompson says.
In addition, babycenter.com offers these insights:
- Use Props That Have Multiple Uses. If possible, avoid realistic commercial toy guns. If your child wants to experiment with gunplay, try using popsicle sticks, rolled up newspaper, or any prop that might just as easily transform into a sword, thermometer, microphone, or baton. Gunplay should be just one part of a broad repertoire of play possibilities.
- Clarify Your Values. A child participating in gunplay is usually yearning to understand power in relationships. By killing the “bad guys,” he can, in his mind, exert some control over his world. “Model ways of problem solving that are respectful of all the parties concerned, and that are not hurtful either physically or emotionally,” says Wilkes. “Talk about what you can do to promote a more peaceful culture.”
There is a great sea of information and research available about boys and gun play. The majority of these articles state that, in fact, there is nothing “wrong” with this type of play. I have given up on trying to get through the summers without water guns, and, after taking it all in, I remind myself to take a deep breath and to remember that my boys are sensitive and caring people who still sleep with teddy bears. We continue to teach our children that it isn’t ok to hurt people, physically or emotionally and that violence isn’t ok. Meanwhile, play is an important way for children to experience, safely, their complex world.
More interesting articles on the subject: