A mom decides: Gun play is good for boys

When her sons were young, Christine Gross-Loh gave them blocks, puzzles and cooperative games, but no guns. She’s changed her mind about toy guns, she writes in The Atlantic.

When her older son was four, he got a plastic toy gun in a birthday party goodie bag.

My son was utterly riveted. I tried to coax it away from him. “Bang bang!” he shouted, running around with the other kids. Just days later my shy little two year old fixated upon a toy sword that came with a pirate toy someone had given him, and would not go anywhere without it. I could see that the ludicrously small sword made him feel brave.

When the boys were three and five, the family moved to Tokyo, where boys play “all sorts of rough-and-tumble war games.”

Our Japanese public elementary school even gave out water guns to all the kids at a summer festival every year. Every single child got one — even three-year-old siblings. The first time I saw the kids screaming with laughter as they shot at each other over and over in the schoolyard, I was surprised by how the adults could be so blasé. They didn’t just tolerate the play: the teachers and even the principal helped fill the kids’ guns with water and ran around shooting and battling alongside their students. They actually encouraged the children, both boys and girls, to play with toy guns.

Almost no Japanese adults own firearms, Gross-Loh writes. There are very few shooting deaths.

. . . ever since living abroad in a society where young kids are allowed so many outlets for their energy, I have come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys’ self-regulation is the way that aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight.

Research doesn’t show that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, Gross-Loh writes. “Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy.”

Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play.

Worried about boys falling behind girls in school, the British education ministry has urged preschool teachers to allow boisterous play, including play with toy weapons, Gross-Loh writes.

About Joanne


  1. ….Doesn’t everybody like a good watergun fight? I am both amazed that someone would be struck with awe at the sight of parents and teachers participating in a watergun fight, and relieved to see that *somebody* is starting to get a clue that maybe toy guns aren’t Pure Evil.

  2. Our church (a mainstream protestant denomination) just had a water fun night with slides, etc, and they had a big water gun section. Our homeschool co-op regularly features boys and girls running around waving sticks at each other, either as swords or guns, during their lunch or recess breaks. We also offer fencing for the high school kids. I’m sure that in some parts of the country this is shocking, but I haven’t heard any complaints at either of these places about what the kids are playing.

  3. Normal parents aren’t scared of waterguns. Except in that “No water fights in the house!” sort of way. Is there a whole enclave of neurotic parents somewhere who actually fear these things?

    We recently bought our kids the most useful toy ever. They have a habit of standing with the door wide open and letting the flies in. So we got them a “Bug-A-Salt.” It shoots salt at flies and kills them. It’s more fun and more deadly than a fly swatter, and non-toxic!

    Really, the gun-phobes miss out on all sorts of cool stuff….

  4. D's Squirrel Food says:

    I would like to see a citation for the self regulation claim.

  5. Foobarista says:

    Toy guns are cool. Water cannons are even more cool.

    Officious bureaucratic control-freaks are decidedly uncool.

  6. Burning Question of the Evening: How do all these ‘no guns and swords’ people feel about Trebuchets?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    A perennial:
    Shortly after 9-11, a woman wrote of her son–probably six years old–who attended the right sort of school. Tag was too aggressive, that sort of thing.
    Kid got out his Spiderman shirt and told his mom not to wait supper because he and his friend–Owen, iirc–were going to save the world.
    The right sort of school had failed to turn him into a passive, sniveling professional victim. But, with more time, who knows?
    One way or another, propensities will out. Squirt guns don’t seem like the worst alternative.

  8. My high school actually had a gun range as part of the ROTC program. You could take a class in gun safety/marksmanship if you so desired. The range safety routines I learned in that class have lasted me my whole life.

  9. I live in a red state and there are several places in my small city for kids to take gun handling and safety courses, including the city itself, for kids 10 and up (IIRC). I think a course is required for a junior hunting license.

    In the DC area, the bluest of the blue, one of the best-run soccer day camps used water cannons (super shooters) to wet kids down in the hottest weather. It kept them from overheating and everyone had lots of fun. I never heard of a parent objecting, and the director coached my son’s travel team for several years.