Let Boys be Boys: Play-Fighting May Actually Be Good for Kids
There's a part of me that wishes my two young boys would be satisfied with the same sorts of stories and toys that I enjoyed as a child: Anne of Green Gables, Beverly Cleary, and American Girls dolls. Instead, they love anything involving bows and arrows, pirates and cannons, whales and harpoons, and knights slaying dragons.
As a Christian holding to pacifist convictions, I feel sheepish admitting that while early on in our family life, I resolved not to allow our boys to engage in any sort of gunplay; over time, that rule has slowly disintegrated as my children weaponized various items: Legos, hobbyhorses, sticks, blocks, and, hilariously, a sheet of edible dried seaweed bitten carefully into the shape of a gun. It wasn't that they'd seen guns on television or in video games. I'm still not sure where the idea came from. I did notice that the relentless weaponization of everything actually waned once I stopped actively saying, "No guns!"
"Isn't a 'pacifist boy' kind of an oxymoron?" a friend recently asked. According to one study, 60 to 80 percent of boys played with aggressive toys at home, including guns, while only 30 percent of girls do. Whether this is in how they're wired or how they're socialized is tough to tell, but the difference is real, and the impulse for some parents and teachers to squash it is strong.
That's not a great idea, says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and author of It's a Boy! Your Son's Development from Birth to 18. "Boys think, 'If you don't like my play, you don't like me.'" Furthermore, studies have never shown any link between playing with toy weapons in childhood (including neutral playthings—sticks, blocks—that have been "weaponized") and violence in adulthood.
When they zap imaginary monsters—or each other—with "space guns" that they've crafted from Legos, they're not acting on hate, or mental disturbance, or a desire to harm. They're playing. It certainly does seem that what my children do in play is in an alternate reality altogether. "Who is the only One who can give life?" I'll catechize. "God," they'll reply. "So who is the only One who should take a life?" I press. "God!" they say, with a barely suppressed of course. I asked my precocious seven-year-old why, if that's true, he still likes to play with guns. "That's why we play with toy guns, Mom," he says, neatly summing up Stuart Brown's entire theory of play "so that no one will get hurt!"