I was at a friend's pool party several weeks ago when one friend arrived with a surprise for all the kiddies present: 10 brand-new, brightly colored water guns, one for each child. I cringed. We have a strict policy against toy guns in my house, but I also didn't want my daughter to be left out of the game that all her friends were about to play. Reluctantly, I gave in-- but the situation got me thinking about toy guns and their implications, and how far parents should reasonably take their limitations on a child's access to toy guns. Every family is different, but here are some tips for navigating the Great Toy Gun Debate with your own kids.
1. Talk about it. If you don't want your kids playing with guns at all, explain why. If you do allow them to play with guns, explain why. Kids are naturally very curious about the reasons behind rules within their families, and it's important to take advantage of these teachable moments to explain your thoughts, feelings, and personal beliefs. Before you start enforcing rules about toy guns, make sure your child knows them in the first place.
2. Explain gun safety. Whether your child is allowed to play with toy guns or not, he does need to know that real guns exist-- and that they can and do kill people. Teach your child how to tell the difference between a toy gun and a fake one (the orange tip at the end is the key) and remind him that he isn't allowed to pick up anything that looks like a gun unless an adult has given him the go-ahead. Children need to have a healthy fear of guns.
3. Know your boundaries and exceptions. Establish-- with your child's input, if possible-- how you feel about different types of toy guns. Perhaps Nerf guns and water guns are fine, but BBs are not. Perhaps you allow your child to play with toy guns at friends' houses, but not on your turf. Establish a clear set of rules and boundaries so your child can knowledgeably stay within them.
4. Establish behavioral limitations. If you do let your child play with toy guns, make sure he understands what is and isn't proper behavior. Harassing someone with an air gun or water gun, while not dangerous, is inappropriate. Scaring someone by pretending that a toy gun is a genuine weapon is also way out of line. This was illustrated in one tragic situation by a child who used a BB gun to try to scare a delivery man-- who turned out to be a police officer, and killed the boy in perceived self defense. Children who use BB guns also need to know the appropriate way to use this potentially harmful toy so as not to injure playmates, animals, or himself.
5. Put your child's well-being first. Remind yourself of your reason for your beliefs about toy guns, whatever they may be. You should make the choices that are best for you and your child-- not because other moms are doing it, or because you don't want to look bad among your friends, or because you played with toy guns as a kid and turned out fine. Your job is to do what's best for your child and will most effectively keep him safe, while also helping him have a normal childhood with normal social experiences. Your choices for your family need to take your unique needs into account-- not social trends or the latest panic among local moms.