I Don’t Think Children Should Play With Toy Guns
By Kevin Naulls, CBC Kids Staff
Photo © 123RF
Nov 10, 2017
I was in Victoria, B.C., with my ex-partner Jay* and his son Michael* when it happened: Michael killed me.
I was a PINO (Parent in Name Only), but I was helping, dutifully, to raise my partner’s son in the way every parent does: clumsily, but getting better with age (like a nice pinot).
On our first trip outside of Toronto as a family, Michael met some new friends — they were around the same age or older, and they hit it off beautifully. But then they founded a club where their sole objective was to “kill” their parents, and I thought, “What kind of American Psycho s—t is this?” With weapons in hand, the three children descended on me shouting “kill him!” I was dead. In the distance, all I could hear was one of the other children exclaim, “let’s kill daddy next.”
But then they founded a club where their sole objective was to “kill” their parents...
I looked around and it seemed as though I was the only one phased by this. This was childhood imagination, and I should be encouraging it. Right? I let it go.
Looking back, I was wrong. I should have questioned and challenged a game of murder, even if Michael was only four. In no world is it fun to imagine a four-year-old murdering you in plain sight. And to make matters worse, it became clear to me that not all parents feel this way.
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During that same trip, at a play date with two moms, in a house I’d never been to, a child’s arsenal of bow-and-arrows, assault rifles and replica glocks were strewn across the carpet. “We don’t play with guns,” I said loudly. I didn’t let it go this time, because a theme had emerged on this trip that I didn’t like: games required some sense of an end, and that end was death. Not always, but often enough to leave an impression. And I knew Michael didn’t know what death meant.
When a kid is four, you find simplified ways to explain larger concepts. “Guns hurt people,” I’d say. “You remember when you hit your head on the table that one time and it hurt a lot? That wasn’t great, right? Well, guns hurt like that, but worse.”
He looked at one tentatively and began playing with it. I repeated myself and explained that they were bad, and that there are so many toys in the room that didn’t hurt people. Still, he persisted.
...in a house I’d never been to, a child’s arsenal of bow-and-arrows, assault rifles and replica glocks were strewn across the carpet
One of the mothers told me that “at this age, everything is a gun.” I said that wasn’t true, that even if a kid could turn a stuffed bear into an imaginary gun, a stuffed bear wasn’t a shockingly real-looking toy weapon that is manufactured to look like the same tools used to massacre people in churches, at concerts and in Sandy Hook. “Play with the Lego,” I said with some authority. “Remember when we built the rocket at home?”
Michael eventually moved on from weapons to blocks. The moms said that it’s not worth trying to curb this impulse, because they are going to be exposed to it anyway. But I have a problem with that casual theory.
Yes, exposure can be important for understanding an idea, but that doesn’t mean you drop a moulded plastic AR-15 in a child’s lap and expect they'll come to the realization on their own that it is a weapon modelled after something designed to kill, and that killing people is wrong.
A child can touch a hot stove and they'll learn that it burns, and they probably won't do it again. But with a toy gun, there isn't a similar outcome. Associating guns with fun is a problem, because it doesn't challenge the tool itself as a problem. And it is a problem, because people are dying every day. If we don’t have these uncomfortable, difficult conversations about guns and what’s happening right now, and literally stop buying them, we’re complicit.
By saying “at that age everything is a gun”, we’re normalizing the violence, and desensitizing children from such a young age that it’s no wonder we are, as a culture, not surprised when we hear Devin Kelley just shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
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I don’t think all kids who play with guns are going to kill their parents, nor take a gun to a public space and devastate a community. I don’t think video games or Marilyn Manson caused Columbine. But I do think selling toy guns to children is incomprehensible, with absolutely no foreseeable benefit. I think we can all agree that gun violence has become far too familiar, and to some degree, accepted as an inevitability until ‘something’ changes.
Associating guns with fun is a problem, because it doesn't challenge the tool itself as a problem.
So where do you draw the line? That’s a decision for every parent to make for themselves, of course. But if you ask me, I’d say nothing at all that mimics the cause and effect of gun violence. That means no replicas of military-grade weaponry, and no handguns (that includes the pistols you can fill with water).
But it also means no soft dart guns, because when I actually look at some of these toys on the market, and look beyond the bright hues, it’s hard for me to not see that they’re really just colourful machine guns and assault rifles.
I don’t think a paint job and a super-fun name is enough of a distance between fantasy and reality. If it looks like it could be or has been used to murder anyone, then it’s a pass for me.
I can’t even suggest a ray gun or laser gun as a kid-friendly, future-inspired alternative, because even the manufacturers of those toys rely on the same design as the age-old tools humans use to kill.
Why not buy your child a plastic horse instead of a weapon? Real horses eat hay, make excellent companions and brushing them can be very therapeutic. Also, they aren’t used to open fire at places like a Quebec City mosque and Parliament Hill, or on five RCMP officers in Moncton. My point is, aren’t there so many toy choices that it almost seems like picking up a gun is a relic of an option?
So instead of stopping in that aisle of the toy store, and grabbing that ultra-realistic toy M16 with no recoil, I think we should be asking why it’s there at all. And then we should go home and tell our kids we love them today and every day, and throw all the toy guns we’ve ever bought in the trash. We should teach them now while they’re young, because right now is when they’re listening.
*Names have been changed
** To read an opposing viewpoint, you can read In Defense of the Toy Gun