In an article for parenting site Scary Mommy, Katie J. describes her horror at her 3-year-old son’s interest in pretending about guns. Katie says her “heart sank” when her son Henry started turning things — “hands, water-guns, pieces of paper, train set tracks and most often, sticks” — into, as Henry calls them, “shoot guns.” Henry likes to pretend he’s using his “shoot gun” to shoot dragons — a fact which Katie says brings her near tears. Katie cites gun violence statistics and the fact that “school shootings are so common now” as her reasons for wanting to ban gunplay in her house. But, based on Katie’s description of the sorts of play her son is engaged in, it sounds much more like Henry will grow up to be the kind of person who stops a school shooter than the kind of person who becomes one.
Katie is conflating her son’s interest in guns with an interest in committing random acts of violence. But it’s much more likely that he is learning to identify with the kind of bravery and protective instincts of knights (who fight dragons, just like Henry) or superheroes. Toronto-based psychologist Joanne Cummings says that playing superheroes, for example, is “a way of identifying with someone who’s brave, who doesn’t shy away from danger—someone who has these wonderful talents and attributes used for good in the world.” In other words, someone who would protect innocent people from violence, not perpetrate it himself.
Cummings explains that boys’ tendency toward gunplay is normal, and is simply a version of pretend play (the female equivalent being playing house, for example). “Boys gravitate more toward active play with themes of fighting and weaponry,” Cummings says, and it “can actually teach boys self-control and self-regulation.” A kid who is pretending to shoot dragons — or “bad guys,” or invading aliens — is placing himself firmly in the “good guy” camp, which is exactly where we want him.
Katie says that she lightened up on her gunplay policy when Henry explained to her that his gun “has water come out to spray the dragon,” and “doesn’t hurt people.” Henry’s compromise came after Katie had explained “ad nauseam” about “the danger of guns” and how guns “aren’t toys and he can never touch one” in an attempt to lay down a no gunplay law in her house. Katie obviously has a very smart little guy on her hands. Telling his mother that his gun shoots water and doesn’t hurt people allowed him to keep practicing being the good guy without Katie’s constant interruptions about things that had nothing to do with what he was doing — like attacking innocent people, or being randomly violent.
But, while a water gun might actually come in handy when battling a fire-breathing dragon, it’s worth considering what Katie has forced her son to do. Now, instead of wielding a powerful (pretend) weapon with which to protect his family from harm, Henry is stuck with an impotent water pistol, rendering him a powerless victim in the fight against evil. That is bound to feel pretty awful to a little guy who is preparing for his role as good guy extraordinaire.
Katie says she hopes that Henry will grow into “a kind, sensitive, thoughtful man,” and she worries that gunplay will make that impossible. But if Henry — or any little boy — is to grow into the kind of man who, for example, protects the women around him from harm, he needs to engage in exactly the kind of play that Katie sought to discourage. Katie says she told her son that he can “never touch” a gun. But what if (when he’s older) someone is threatening the people he loves, and he has the option to protect them with a firearm? Should he leave the gun on the table because his mother told him that merely touching a gun would make him an evildoer? Or should he act, and save lives?
If we discourage our sons from acting out their fantasies of saving the day against bad guys, we teach them that the role of protector is the same as that of a violent criminal. We shame them for an impulse that ought to be applauded — the desire to shelter, protect, and rescue those weaker than themselves — and leave them confused about how best to be a man. Henry had it right: when faced with a dragon, grab the gun, shoot the monster, save the day. Do that, and you’ll grow up to be a hero.