In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.
– Francis Bacon
Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.
– YODA, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
“I want to be Darth Vader when I grow up,” said E with grandeur as he strutted through the house with the confidence of a Dark Lord. For a Mom whose nickname was once “peace lady,” this statement made me shudder though I tried to contain it. Without any warning, gun play just started showing up in our son’s play repertoire. Similarly preschool teachers will report that when there is a lack of weapons in classrooms with which to play, children will create them out of cheese sticks or paintbrushes. Though a gene for a proclivity to embrace weapons has not yet been discovered, there is likely both a nature and nurture (environmental and social) explanation for children’s and particularly boys’ interest in gun play. Some claim that villains are just more interesting to children. They wear bold costumes and masks or face paint. They are the point of conflict and facilitator of drama in a story. Before having children, in my days as Director of the Center for Peace Education, my position was “I will never buy toy weapons for a child of mine.” Never say never! My son is the proud owner of three light sabers and has inherited from his Star Wars’ loving father tiny weapons galore all assigned to a wide range of action figures. So what do educators and experts say about weapon and villain play? How does it relate to keeping children safe? And practically, what are caring parents to do when it comes to play that involves the dark side?
Educators in numerous studies report that when they allow children to guide pretend play including play scripts that involve weapons and villains, children can engage in highly complex and advanced scenarios. When researchers in a laboratory preschool at the University of Maine[i] allowed children to lead the play and only guided them on adhering to safety rules, they found that the “bad guy” play that evolved was inclusive (all students, male and female) and cooperative. Children pursued stories that allowed for problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills to be practiced. Because of the excitement of the play, children engaged in these stories multiple times making slight changes to the story as they played. These studies indicate that the play that may make adults squeamish (“Are my children learning that hurting or killing is fun and okay?”), actually gives children the freedom to play out scenarios for conquering fear, demonstrating bravery, understanding death and working together with their playmates.
The opposite, however, is true as it relates to television, movies and video games in which children are passive receivers of violent or aggressive imagery. Researchers show that children adopt new and more intense violence and aggression as they see it portrayed in the media. They can be desensitized and actually traumatized by what they view and that can lead to less creativity and imaginative play. For more, read “Television: Navigating our Global Neighborhood.”
Ohio, the state in which I live, has a gun ownership rate of 32.4%[ii] and many states exceed 50% of all households so even if you do not own a gun yourself, it’s likely that your child will play in a friend’s house that will have a weapon. Make sure you have well educated your child on the issue.
The following are some practical ways parents can ensure that children are growing and developing through their imagination and pretend play, promoting values of working together and collaboration (versus violence and separation) and also, staying safe.
1. Educate on gun safety.
Children who are preschool age and up need to be educated about gun safety. Teach your child that they should assume all guns are loaded and ready to shoot. You should not scare your child with stories of children dying (in fact, programs that use scare tactics with children have been found ineffective because the child shuts down to the information when scared). Show him a picture of a real gun. Instruct him that if he would ever come across a weapon in a friend’s house, he should not touch it, leave and let an adult know that it is exposed immediately. If you are a gun owner, be certain that your gun is locked with a key in a place that is not accessible to any children. Many schools who have adopted a social and emotional learning curriculum include violence prevention education in their offerings. For more on social and emotional learning in schools and curricula available, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning 2013 Program Guide.
2. Buy toys that look like toys.
Never purchase a toy gun or weapon that closely resembles a real one. Why risk confusion when your child could come across a real weapon in your own home or a friend’s home? Only buy weapons that are colorful, clearly look like toys and do not resemble the real thing. Let Grandma and other gift givers know your stance on this as well so that you do not end up with toys that you don’t want in your household.
3. Cultivate a trusting connection.
You want your child to come to you and tell you when they have a.) seen a weapon in a friend’s home, b.) experienced an adult or another child who is being unsafe or c.) been inappropriately approached (touched, yelled at, struck) by another adult or child. Many children do not tell their parents when such incidents occur because they fear a parent will react in anger or disgust. Some children do not tell because they fear that the action will be viewed as their fault. Parents unwittingly communicate they are not open to such conversations when they criticize other parents or children in front of their child. The child then thinks, “Well if they don’t approve of Jack hitting on the playground, they are really going to be mad if they hear he hit me. They may not let him be my friend anymore.” Emphasize regularly (once is not enough) that you want them to share anything that is upsetting to them with you. You will help them and not be angry. Keep criticisms about other parents and children to yourself or to conversations with your partner when your children are not around to hear.
4. Set house rules for safe play.
Involve your child in discussing and creating rules around weapon, violence or villain play that keep all involved safe. Some households emphasize “target practice” instead of aiming at a person to avoid accidents. Others set a rule for “no body contact” or “no weapons aimed above the chest.” Make sure the rules are clear when other children are visiting so that you can allow play to evolve but reinforce safety rules when needed.
5. Do not give high emotion or energy to violent play.
Part of the attraction of violent play is the high excitement and emotion of it. Often when we parents are shocked and awed by something, children take notice and repeat the precipitating action again and again. If children are not able to create shocking reactions in adults, they will likely not be as interested in pursuing violent play. Then, their play will turn more toward working out scenarios of conquering fear and demonstrating courage in the face of danger.
6. Share your own attitudes and values about violence.
“Nothing (good) comes from violence and nothing ever could,” goes the song, Fragile[iii] by Sting and that sums up my own philosophy. Violence only creates more violence. Share your own values about violence with your children. Make a point to raise this issue on occasion so that they hear what you think and believe. And in that moment, make sure that you create a trusting space for them to ask questions and share their own thoughts and feelings to help them to begin to cultivate their own values about violence.
I attempted my own experiment at home. With action figures strewn across the living room floor, E said “Let’s play!” to me yesterday as he often does. He assigned me to play the darkest Sith Lord, the Emperor, along with numerous other good and bad guys and he had his own set of villians. I allowed him to lead the play and as it evolved, I had the Emperor kill all of the good guys because that’s what the Emperor does and said, “Now what?” The good guys were all dead and there was no fighting to be had so “Now what?” He proceeded to resurrect all of the good guys and began playing only with the good guys – pursuing Jedi training, presenting medals to the heroes and celebrating with the Ewoks in their tree houses. He has not seen those movies but knows the stories from the large stack of Star Wars library books we come home with each week. When the bad guys successfully killed everyone, the story became a lot less interesting. Good guys needed to rise again in order to imagine coming adventures. Imaginative play was brought back to life.
When parents think about violence in the world and our precious children, it’s scary…scarier than any imaginative fright that may come up in a movie on late night television playing over the coming weeks before Halloween. There are sensible steps we can take to ensure that we are intimately connected to our children’s lives so that they trust us and communicate with us what really matters when we are not around. We can proactively educate them about safety so that they are stewards of those rules in our homes, neighborhoods and schools. And we can open the door to conversations about violence so that children can begin to formulate their own values about the forces of dark and light. So often the gift children give us is the opportunity for reflection and a reexamination of our own values and how we are living them as models in their lives.
For another good article on this topic, visit:
For a terrific site for parents on child safety, visit:
Also, check an outstanding book on specifically raising boys:
Gurian, M. (2006). The wonder of boys; What parents, mentors and educators can do to shape boys into exceptional men. NY: Penguin Group.
[iii] Sting. (1988). Fragile. Nothing Like the Sun. A & M Records.