It’s National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and the survivors of mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Las Vegas to Orlando to Parkland are speaking out to remind us: The time for gun reform is now (in fact, it’s so many years overdue) and our kids lives are more important than anyone’s guns. In fact, plenty of parents and educators are questioning whether it’s time to make even toy guns a thing of the past.
Maria, who has a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, tells SheKnows she doesn’t think there’s a correlation between playing with toy guns and violence later in life — but she still chooses not to buy them for her children. “Ever since Sandy Hook, it’s just made me really queasy to see kids playing with toy guns. And there are so many other toys out there that are educational,” Maria says. “With all the other toy options that send a positive message, I can’t see one good reason to buy toy guns for my kids.”
Alexandra, the mother two boys ages 6 and 4, has a different outlook. “I think there needs to be policy change when it comes to gun control because obviously the legislation that’s currently in place isn’t enough,” Alexandra says. “But I don’t think toy guns are part of the problem. When my sons play with their toy guns, they’re clamoring to be the good guy who comes to the rescue — not the person who seeks to cause harm.”
There’s been precious little research on the impact of toy guns, although one study conducted at Brandeis University in 2010 found that toy guns do increase aggressive behaviors. However, many psychologists don’t see the benefit to banning these toys. Dr. Forrest Talley, a California-based child psychologist, tells SheKnows that a ban simply wouldn’t be helpful.
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Talley says very few toys are “toxic” to a child’s development and notes the absence of solid research supporting the theory that children who play with toy guns will become more violent than those who aren’t permitted to have these toys.
“What parents need to be concerned with is the quality of the play with which their children engage. If a child’s play involves themes wherein the youngster is frequently and clearly identifying with a pernicious character, that would be troubling. But removing toy guns will not prevent this type of identification,” Talley says. “Good parenting, which inspires children to emulate positive role models in their play, is the strongest safeguard in this respect.”
Daniel Patterson, a former vice principal and owner of Patterson Perspective, a consulting firm that specializes in helping parents raise teens who thrive socially and academically, disagrees. Firstly, Patterson points out there’s no moral or social reason for children to have toy guns in the first place.
“Toy guns erode our children’s ability to understand the finality of death. In playing guns, they get shot, die and bounce back to their feet in joyful play as if nothing has happened. That’s the wonder of childhood imaginations,” Patterson says. “They are too young to understand, and it’s not their fault. However, over time, with repetition — and via mediums like violent video games — they are inundated with positively associated examples of gun violence not being real, final or fatal.”
Patterson also notes that toy guns can send mixed messages to young, impressionable children. “Children form positive associations with them without the proper context that guns, in their non-toy form, are used to cause often fatal damage to others,” he says. “Positive associations with anything from childhood results in an overly romanticized perception of that memory as an adult.”
Of course, Patterson acknowledges that the vast majority of children who play with toy guns don’t become violent later in life. Nevertheless, he points out that we don’t give kids toy cigarettes for a simple reason: We don’t want them to associate something unhealthy with positive, fun memories.
Alise McGregor, founder of Little Newtons, a childcare center focusing on early childhood education, also tells SheKnows she doesn’t believe toy guns are the reason for the epidemic of gun violence in America. But McGregor says that due the danger of mixed messages, she advises against parents buying toy guns for their kids.
“Thinking of playing with guns from age 3 to, say, 10 years old and then switching to avoiding them because they are dangerous can be confusing,” McGregor says.
She also urges parents to think about what we’re teaching children when we allow them to play with toy guns. “If we are teaching children to be kind and building strong children, toy guns bring a conflicting message,” McGregor tells SheKnows. “Outside of the gun itself, the ‘play’ that is experienced when playing with guns involves fake-shooting each other, which is something that is conflicting (in my opinion) with treating others with respect and respecting life.”
For parents who have previously kept toy guns in the home but now want to remove them, McGregor recommends explaining the why to your child in terms they’ll understand. It can be as simple as discussing why guns are dangerous and that parents want their children to be safe. And, luckily, there are plenty of other active toys out there that serve kids better than guns do — from sports toys to nature-inspired toys to McGregor’s favorite, toys that represent “community helpers” (fire trucks, police cars and ambulances).
As the conversation surrounding every aspect of gun violence continues, it seems likely more research will be conducted about the impact (or lack thereof) of toy guns. In the meantime, the insights of Talley, Patterson and McGregor can provide some guidance to parents who are currently feeling conflicted. The bottom line? Whether or not it’s worthwhile — let alone productive — to issue any kind of national toy gun ban, chances are good there’s a toy out there that just might serve your child better.
A version of this story was originally published in April 2018.
Check out these toy gun alternatives parents can feel good about.