Last year a second-grader in my son's school was suspended for threatening to shoot his classmates with the gun his father had bought him for hunting. The teacher told me that the child's parents thought she had overreacted by suspending the boy for a day and calling a meeting with them and with the principal. But it doesn't seem like an overreaction to me, as long as someone talked to the boy and helped him understand why this is serious.
In 2001, a six-year-old boy shot a fellow first-grader. A few years earlier two boys, 11 and 13, shot five people in their middle school, and Columbine—with 13 dead—happened in April 1999. Meanwhile, kids spend hours each day watching TV shows that make violence look like fun and playing with toys that blur the line between violence and play. We need to take the role of violent play in children's lives seriously. But what's the right reaction?
The issue is not simple. For one thing, it seems boys will play with guns no matter what their parents say or do about it. "Sam never asked me for a gun," says Leslie Crawford, a San Francisco writer, of her five-year-old son. "But when he was only two, he put together a Duplo gun. They use whatever is at hand: their hands, Tinkertoys, Legos, a stick."
How are parents who are concerned about these things supposed to react?
"I don't worry about it too much," says Crawford, a self-described worrier. "A very gentle 65-year-old preschool teacher once told me, 'I raised two boys during the sixties and wouldn't allow them to have toy guns. I was against the war and so against guns. If I had allowed them, they would have gotten it out of their system and moved on—but the obsession lasted for years.' In other words, let them play with toy guns, and like most other things with kids, they'll move on to something else when they tire of it."
"To a certain extent that's true," agrees Dianne Levin, Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston and co-author of The War Play Dilemma (Teachers College Press). "Children bring to their play what they need to figure out. They play about what scares them and what they don't understand, and it helps them understand and feel better. If children are bringing war and violence into their play it's because they need to work on it."
But rather than giving in and buying toy guns, parents can help kids sort out these troubling issues in other ways. Young minds cannot always tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and they are bombarded by the media—and sometimes by life—with salient violent images. The preschool teacher's kids, who grew up obsessed with guns during the Vietnam War, were no doubt as confused by that war as our children are by September 11th, the war in Iraq, and even the recent election of The Terminator as governor of California.