Is Weapon Play Good for Boys?

This post was originally published November 26, 2009 on my Achilles Effect blog. 

Image of Toy SoldiersThere it was, right there in black and white. Well, red and green actually.

I was looking at my 7-year-old son’s Christmas list, written in festive red and green ink, when I found myself completely flummoxed by the second last item: True Heroes Military Island Playset. His newfound interest in the game Risk was one thing, but now this?

I have always preached pacifism and made gender balance one of the main criteria in my toy selections. True, I have allowed some Star Wars toys into our home simply because they are so obviously fictitious. But army toys? With tanks and fighter jets and lots of little soldiers? It all seemed so real and so, well, “alpha-male”. How could my son, who recently deemed the movie Up too violent, want a toy with which he could play “war”?

To put my reaction in context, I should disclose that I have, for the past year, been knee-deep in research into the impact of gender stereotypes on young boys. I have also read with interest the recent spate of articles on the so-called “trouble with boys,” with aggression and poor performance at school being foremost among them. So it is fair to say that I approached my son’s Christmas list with some baggage.

Luckily, among my research materials was a book by Penny Holland called We don’t play with guns here. Leaving aside the issue of gender, I revisited this book in hopes of finding some explanation for my son’s choice of toy. What I found calmed me and may surprise you. Research and anecdotal evidence show that war, weapon, and superhero play is not bad for boys. In fact, it just might be good for them.

Holland’s book explores the impact of relaxing the zero-tolerance approach to war, weapon, and superhero play that prevails in UK child care centres. She argues that strict bans on this type of play should be reconsidered and she offers plenty of reasons why.

For starters, war, weapon, and superhero play helps kids deal with the sometimes violent images and aggressive behaviours they see on TV, in movies, or even at home. As Holland notes, adults can insist that children ignore these images or they can work with them to “process and imaginatively transform such material” through pretend play.

For children who are at risk of anti-social or aggressive behaviour, war, weapon, and superhero play provides an outlet with positive outcomes – engagement in the play group and the chance to exercise their creative muscle through imaginative play. Even for kids who are not considered “at risk,” this kind of play offers equal benefits in imaginative development: when kids pretend, they talk more, share and resolve conflict, uncover common interests with others, and build friendships.

While it’s true that all kinds of imaginative play can have these effects, it tends to be only war, weapon, and superhero play that is banned. For some kids (usually boys), this is a big problem. For these boys, war, weapon, and superhero play can be “the spark that ignites [their] interest” in pretend play. And, contrary to what most adults think, this kind of play does not lead to an increase in aggressive behaviour. Research has shown that only about 1% of pretend play leads to real aggression, although the numbers do rise among children who already have aggressive tendencies.

A few caveats. I am not advocating toy guns for kids, nor is Penny Holland. In fact, she is speaking specifically of situations where kids construct weapons from building toys, like Lego. Nor am I discounting the impact of a child’s surroundings on how weapon play, in particular, is interpreted. My son is a middle-class suburb dweller. For him and his friends, guns are about as realistic as light sabres and Kryptonite. For other kids, sadly, guns are all too real. But the benefits of war, weapon, and superhero play still apply, as psychologist Jerome Singer asserts in reference to toy soldier sets:

“I do want to emphasize that such toys can be conducive to generating imaginative play without provoking overtly violent behaviour… It could be argued that one reason some children act out aggressive behaviour directly (in addition to imitating the adult violence they may experience in the family or vicariously) is that … they have not practised, starting with pretend play, their capacity to play out possibilities in a miniaturized mental world, and by so doing learned to explore negative as well as positive consequences of linking direct actions to wishes and emotions.”

Why have these children been denied the opportunity for imaginative development through war play? For the same reasons that I am questioning my son’s desire for an army play set: parental misunderstanding.

If there is one overriding lesson in Holland’s book for parents and other adult caregivers it is this: we are too quick to assume that a desire to play “knights” or “Batman” means violence and aggression will ensue. We are so caught up in what war, weapon, and superhero play means to us that we fail to ask our children what it means to them.

So I asked my son. For him and, I suspect, many other boys, this kind of play is not about hurting or killing people. It is about strategizing and problem solving. It is about the age-old battle of good vs. evil – one where “bad” does not die, but is simply vanquished by the forces of good. It is about finding a sense of security and control over the things they fear. And, most importantly, it is about having fun.

The bottom line is that we adults have to lighten up a little and let kids explore the themes that we may find off-putting. We can’t discount their opinions and choices, and we can’t deny them the chance to process what must be very complex and difficult issues.

Will I buy that army play set for my son? I’m not sure I’m ready to lighten up that much yet. But I know that the next time he takes out his Risk game and lines up his little weapons, I will be considerably less concerned.

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