The War on Toy Guns: Boy, Girls, and the Games They Play

Four years ago, I wrote a column on the controversy over boys and toy guns. In my column today in USA Today I return to the issue to discuss some recent research in the area.

Four years ago, I was publicly identified as a danger to children. As the doting father of four, it was a bit of a surprise, but my “outing” occurred after my boys and I built an authentic Conestoga wagon to ride in our Northern Virginia neighborhood’s “Wheel Day.” Mid-parade, an irate mother confronted me after spotting toy guns in the covered wagon — objecting to my instilling violent values in my boys. I later received an e-mail from another parent that this covered wagon was no “innocent fantasy” since I must be aware “what guns were used for in the Old West?” It turns out that my kids were apparently rehearsing the genocidal massacre of Native Americans.

Truth be known, I actually did not view the wagon as a tribute to ethnic cleansing. But the real issue was not Western fantasies or phobias. It was guns.

I let my boys play with toy guns and swords. With many parents and schools enforcing a zero-tolerance policies toward toy guns, such toys are producing an increasing divide on playgrounds and play dates.
Early this year, a 7-year-old in Oklahoma City was suspended from school for pointing his finger like a gun and shooting at a wall. He is not the first “finger-gun” suspension — part of zero-tolerance policy in schools that recently have led to the suspension of kids for everything from drawing stick figures with guns to wearing a hat with an image of an armed soldier on it. In December, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch organized an annual “bashing” of toy guns at which parents bring their children to destroy toy guns in exchange for non-violent toys such as puzzles. In January, Hawaii legislators sought, but ultimately failed, to make it a crime to sell a toy gun to anyone younger than 18. While the crackdown on toy guns has continued to grow, this debate has been remarkably detached from developmental studies and seems to be more about parents than their kids.

Toys and gender
As someone on the nature side of this debate, a new study in Current Biology magazine caught my eye. After 14 years of observing young chimpanzees in Uganda, leading researchers found that they shared the same innate preferences in toys and games as human children. Males and females were found to gravitate toward what are called “biological predilections” in toys. The researchers found that females tended to treat sticks like dolls to mimic their mothers while males used sticks as weapons. Most interesting, when Richard Wrangham of Harvard University and co-author Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College gave juvenile monkeys sex-stereotyped human toys, the females tended to play with the dolls while the males are more apt to play with “boys’ toys,” such as trucks.

Joyce Benenson, associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College, told Discovery News that this study reinforces her own research that “biological mechanisms (underlie) children’s toy preferences” and “suggests … a biological basis for human sex differences.”

Of course, who needs a Uganda chimp research center? I had Madie. Surrounded by brothers (now 12, 10 and 8), Madie (now 5) grew up in a house overflowing with boys and boy toys. Madie is certainly competent with every model of Nerf weapon. However, she primarily maintains a legion of dolls with enough clothes to outfit an Army division.

Psychologist and author Glen David Skoler has argued that games involving toy guns and swords most often occur as boys are transitioning from the “amoral, self-centered, and unsocialized” world of toddlers. He calls this an “intermediary level of moral functioning,” where boys experiment with “games of good guys vs. bad guys and epic struggles between good and evil.” Child psychologist Penny Holland reached the same conclusion in her book We Don’t Play with Guns Here, saying that toy gun play is often “part of … timeless themes of the struggle between good and evil.”

Potsdam vs. pirates
In truth, my kids are not obsessed with guns and show no signs of being nascent Hannibal Lecters graduating to higher and higher forms of carnage. Ironically, I grew up in a zero-tolerance household, where my mother destroyed any toy guns that she found. We became obsessed with secretly hiding squirt guns around the house like adolescent drug users.

What is astonishing to me is how detached the zero-tolerance movement is not just from research but also from reality. One Mothering magazine article advised mothers on how to respond to their boys found playing with guns or swords. The writer suggested that parents take their boys aside and “emphasize healing” and show their boys how to make “magical medicines.” The magazine also advised that parents could also “transform guns into magical wands” and “channel energy into other games.” My personal favorite, however, was that parents should stop such games and have the kids play “peacemaking” by creating “a roundtable with a mediator and write a peace accord.”

Perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could pull off the peace accord game, but I doubt that most kids would find re-enacting the Potsdam Conference of World War II to be a good substitute for a pirate war.

Toy guns are no more the cause of violence than toy kitchen sets are the cause of obesity. Hundreds of millions of men grew up with toy guns and never turned to a life of spasmodic violence. On this issue, kids seem a lot more sophisticated than their parents. They know it’s just a game.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

March 8, 2011

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  3. Why are firearms treated with such disrespect and looked down on? If you were to compare medical illness’ to deaths at the business end of a firearm there is a huge difference. more people die from disease than not using a firearm properly and I am sorry to all of you guys that think only guys have a thing for weapons. I was the only girl of 9 cousins and my dad was an avid hunter so not only do i know how to shoot but weapons are a part of who i am. I grew up knowing the difference in a toy “gun” and a real firearm. also if you disrespect a firearm enough to call it a “gun” you need a lesson in how to handle it and use it properly! IT IS A FIREARM! a gun is something else entirely and has nothing to do with any kind of weapon. call it by it’s name “AK 47” or “firearm” not “gun”. If you are taught to respect “WEAPONS” in general from a young age it is not such a far stretch of the imagination to treat a firearm with respect. I had access to knives, bows (compound and long), and one 22, 2 black powders, a 12 gauge and a 20 gauge.

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