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Do You Let Your Kids Play with Toy Guns?

Like most parents, I try to toe the line between shielding my kids from some aspects of pop culture, world news and whatnot enough to allow them their childhood innocence while also preparing them to survive—and thrive—in the actual world we live in. Taking the long view, my goal is to raise emotionally healthy boys into men who respect themselves and others, who can think critically about the messages they receive and contribute within their communities without being swallowed whole by the prevailing zeitgeist of the time. In terms of how this plays out in our day-to-day lives, well—not shockingly—it involves some compromise.

Consider Example A: Superheroes. My five-year-old, Kaspar, has been really, really into superheroes for over a year now. I don't recall where he first learned about them, exactly, whether at preschool or elsewhere, but Batman, Superman and Spiderman have been a pretty big deal in our home for a while. I support Kaspar's enthusiasm for this just as much as I do his interest in sea creatures or his passion for pirates. And while I don't exactly get the superhero fascination on an adult level, I can see how, at five years old—as the world begins to come into focus and can seem kind of big and scary—imagining oneself to be an invincible force for good might be appealing. Watching a five-year-old run around in a superhero cape all the time is also super cute.

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I don't, however, love the glorification of the hyper-agro protagonist that's so fundamental to the superhero genre, or the way the female characters are drawn with costumes so contoured that the women might as well be naked. (Let's not even get into the gender stereotypes built into the plot lines.) Some of this flies under the radar for Kaspar, and we've kept it more tame by buying him only the materials that are geared toward his age group, like early-reader books and the occasional little kid-oriented superhero cartoon on Netflix. We also make a point to talk about what we're reading or watching with Kaspar. (I ask questions like, "Why did he punch that guy?" Or say, "This is exciting, but I'm glad it's just pretend.") So while he loves superheroes, Kaspar doesn't think punching someone is a way to solve a problem, even if Batman does.

Superheroes are obviously fantastical; no real people run around in masks and spandex bodysuits fighting evil villains. But real people do run around shooting guns and thereby killing other real people.

One thing I appreciate about the superhero stuff that's made for younger kids is that, in general, the characters don't use guns. Batarangs and sonic laser darts, maybe, but not actual firearms. Even so, like other little boys his age, Kaspar sometimes plays guns, and this, however predictable or normal, is something I've had a harder time compromising on. Superheroes are obviously fantastical; no real people run around in masks and spandex bodysuits fighting evil villains. But real people do run around shooting guns and thereby killing other real people. This has also become kind of commonplace in our culture, and this is something I'm definitely not comfortable with. I firmly believe we need gun control in the United States and I never, ever wanted my boys to think guns are cool. I've never bought so much as a water pistol for them, but we have read Treasure Island and Kaspar has seen the original, classic "Star Wars" films (which he LOVES). And… yeah, Kaspar does play guns sometimes, just like he plays at swordfights or karate. In lieu of gun-like toys, he uses sticks, bananas and shoes.

It's not an unhealthy obsession—this isn't a "We Need to Talk About Kevin" kind of situation or anything. In fact, I can see in the way that his friends play, too, that it's totally normal behavior; as soon as Kas and his little buddies get together, it's only a matter of time before they start pretending to shoot at bad guys (and then switch, just as quickly, back to playing gun-free space explorers, etc.). Research on the topic shows no correlation between gun play and violence or aggression later in life. (My brother played pretend guns, as did my husband. Neither owns a firearm now.) So I shifted somewhat begrudgingly from an initial stance of No Gun Play Ever to no toy guns.

Then, recently, our super-sweet elderly neighbor saw us walking by, indicated that we should wait for her and then disappeared into her house. When she returned, she presented Kaspar with a realistic-ish foam rifle. He was thrilled. I suppose I could have said "Oh, thank you but we can't accept that," but Kaspar had already grabbed it and run off ahead, and our neighbor is not only hard of hearing, but also hardly speaks English. It would have been difficult to politely give the toy back to her… and taking it away from Kaspar once we got home would have been pretty mean. So we talked about it. I told Kaspar that I really, really don't like guns and so I don't particularly like it when he plays guns, but that I trust that he understands it's just pretend. And then I set some rules.

RELATED: How I Talk to My Children About Guns

Kaspar knows real guns are dangerous; I have given him explicit instructions to leave the room and get a grown-up if he ever sees a gun in real life. When he plays guns, he is not allowed to point them (the foam rifle, or the sticks/bananas/shoes) at anyone's body. And he's only allowed to play guns in our backyard—not at our playgroup or any public space where he might "shoot" at others who aren't playing his game. So far, he's following the rules to a T—I think because he knows I really don't want to let him play guns at all and he doesn't want me to revoke my compromise. For my part, I've accepted that this is a "boy thing" or a kid thing that I'm not exactly comfortable with but is, I'm fairly certain, essentially harmless. (But still, guns. Ugh.)

What are your thoughts and rules around gun play? Do you let your kids have fake guns as toys? Do you think playing guns is bad for kids?

Image via Getty Images

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