20 August 2013


(Photo by Kevin Miller)
To play or not to play with toy guns? Christine Gross-Loh asked this question in her recent article in the Atlantic, “Keeping Kids From Toy Guns: How One Mother Changed Her Mind.” She explains how she initially opposed gun play in her family, but after spending time in Japan where gun play is tolerated by parents and encouraged by teachers, she decided it could benefit kids and their imaginations. 

Her argument rests on the premise that a permissive attitude towards gun play results in better self-regulation in children. She notes that weapon play was far more common in the U.S. in the 1950s and cites a study that asserts that American children had better self-regulation 60 years ago. She adds, “But societal panic intensified in the wake of a spate of tragic school shootings in the 1990s, and a shift towards zero tolerance policies and regulating how children should play has been steadily increasing ever since.” 

At which point she lost me. 

This sentence tangles together two concepts: play policy and gun policy. Do American parents and educators discourage weapon play due to a misguided cultural belief that “gun play desensitizes kids to violence”? Perhaps. Yet I would argue that a greater contributing factor is that, in the U.S., it’s far too easy for fantasy and reality collide. 

Gross-Loh acknowledges, “Today in Japan, almost no one owns firearms and there are hardly any deaths by gun” and “there is no easy answer when my Japanese friends wonder at the paradox of our banning gun play when we do not ban the guns that kill thousands of children and teens in the U.S. each year”, but she fails to connect playground policies discouraging gun play with the reality of gun violence in America

Let’s reflect on the fact that after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, citizens and politicians have been unable to enact meaningful legislation to make owning a gun at least as difficult as obtaining a driver’s license, in defiance of all evidence that demonstrates a high rate of gun ownership correlates with a high incidence of homicide. 

Let’s consider the children who have gained access to real guns and accidentally shot themselves or others, like this one, this one, this one, and this one, just in the past month. 

Let’s remember as well the children who have been shot by police because they possessed toy guns that resembled real ones. Let’s also contemplate the gun lobby that not only blocks legislation to curb gun ownership and prevents any scientific research into gun violence in the U.S., but also stands against regulations on toy gun designs that would make it easier for police to distinguish a toy from a genuine weapon. 

So I take issue with Gross-Loh’s dismissal of American attitudes towards “gun play” as cultural difference. Bans on toy guns and gun play are rooted in real fears, not phantom overreactions, based on hundreds of tragedies where minors have acquired guns and used them to very deadly effect. Since we who oppose gun violence can’t seem to move by reason or emotion key politicians to enact a less permissive weapons policy, we try to enact those policies at home. We can’t control the guns, but maybe we can control our children. A false sense of security, to be sure. 

I find the second question—does allowing gun play lead to better self-regulation in children?—more difficult to address. Gross-Loh writes, “I have come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys’ self-regulation is the way that aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight,” but provides no citation for this assertion. As with many discipline-specific terms, “self-regulation” can be hard to define, particularly across cultures. 

(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Nevertheless, I hardly think that whether American children engage in gun play is the single key to their “self-regulation.” First of all, even with “gun play bans” in place, can we say that gun play has effectively declined? An imaginative child (i.e., all of them) will create a gun out of anything at hand: sticks, pieces of paper, a thumb and a forefinger. Secondly, can we really assert anything about all American children, across all ages, given the vast differences of class, cultures, and backgrounds? The study she cites examined children in Oregon and Michigan, who “were demographically mostly white.” (The Asian children studied were in China, Taiwan, and South Korea.)

I heartily agree with Gross-Loh, however, that American children are not given enough opportunities and time for unregulated imaginative play. My daughter is about to enter kindergarten where, at five years old, she will be assigned homework. (I first received homework at age nine.) Our education system has come to focus on academics at the cost of unstructured play time like recess and imaginative outlets like visual and performing arts classes. Since both parents usually work and require childcare beyond the end of the school day, children can further lose unstructured time to extracurricular language classes, tutoring, sports classes, etc. Additionally, the proliferation of screens—and parents’ needs to get things done while their children are stationary with videos and iPad games—can also reduce time for imaginative play. (I call these “the opiate of my children” and deploy them willingly as needed.) 

I frequently cite an anecdote from another of Gross-Loh’s articles, “Have American Parents Got It All Backwards?”, where she highlights the Finnish model of education. She recounts that an American Fulbright grant recipient queried a Finnish teacher, “How can you teach when the children are going outside every 45 minutes?” to which the astonished Finnish teacher replied, “I could not teach unless the children went outside every 45 minutes!” 

I am fully in favor of educational policies that allow children more time to engage in imaginative play. I am also willing to consider that gun play could be a healthy part of children’s imaginative worlds—as long as it remains in the realm of play. 

I am not, however, willing to continue a national policy on guns that relies on “self-regulation.” In our armed society, children die at epidemic levels, and that is a fact, not fantasy. 

Read my series on gun violence, Guns and Anger, including my response to the mass shooting that occurred less than two blocks from my children's school.  


  1. Yes. Yes. and Yes. Excellent piece!! I do think that curbing gun play does very little (I actually just wrote a blog piece about how aggressively play in boys can be an important part of development http://www.mamamzungu.com/2013/08/boys-will-be-dogs.html) but I totally agree that it's a natural reaction given our inability to ANYTHING to enact sensible gun policy. And as if I couldn't get any more indignant about the NRA, you had to go and tell me that they are fighting legislation to change TOY gun design. Future gun owners I suppose? Argh!!!

    1. Hi, Kim! Yes, I read your post, and agreed with you as well. I don't actually have a problem with my kids playing aggressively with each other. I do try to monitor it so it doesn't get out of hand (or result in injury), but I try to be a bit hands-off when they play like that. I'm sorry I had to make you realize that the NRA is even worse than you thought - I was quite shocked myself when I read about it. I admire Gross-Loh quite a bit (I relied on her book when we tried to EC), but I couldn't quite conscience the way she glossed over the reasons why gun play might be more terrifying for American parents than Japanese ones.

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