Help Encouraging Non-Violence in Young Children’s Play

Tips from LeeAnn Bartolini, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Licensed Psychologist, on how to engage your child in play:

To support your child’s healthy development, allow him/her to be a child and to engage in age appropriate play. Each child needs to grow up on their own time schedule and in their own way. Let your child lead in the area of toy choice and pretend play. You can shore up their self-esteem and help them to develop empathy towards others by allowing free unstructured play time, where they can be in charge of what they play and how they play.  Get down on the floor and play with your child in their games. Offer lots of praise for their inner qualities such as kindness, intelligence, caring, and creativity. Model real and healthy responses when you engage in pretend play.

Establish rules and boundaries in this play so it can feel emotionally safe for both of you. These rules include:

  1. Never point a “gun” (or a finger ) at  anyone’s face
  2. No hitting or hurting anyone while playing
  3. If someone says “stop” the game needs to stop right away

The television personality, Mr. Rogers, said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” By participating in play with your child you will gain an understanding of what they are learning and you will have the opportunity to gently redirect their play, if necessary.

Additional Tips:

To Promote Creative and Imaginative Play:

  • Help children find “scripts” for their play that grow out of their own experiences and interests, like creating a pet store, fire station, spaceship, or hospital.
  • Help children play with toys that can be used in many ways like blocks, playdough and dress-up clothes, rather than highly realistic, media-linked toys that tell children what and how to play.

Choose Toys That:

  • Can be used in a variety of ways.
  • Promote creativity and problem-solving because they let children decide how they will be used.
  • Can be enjoyed at different ages and stages.
  • Can be used with other toys to create new and more complex play opportunities.
  • Promote respectful, non-stereotyped, non-violent interactions among children.

Don’t Choose Toys That:

  • Can only be used in one way.
  • Encourage everyone to play in the same way and work on the problems defined by the toy designer.
  • Appeal primarily to a certain age or stage.
  • Will channel children into imitating the (violent) scripts they see on TV.
  • Encourage violence and stereotypes that lead to disrespectful, aggressive interactions.

What Parents Can Do so Playing with Toy Guns Doesn’t Get Out of Hand:

Talk with your kids if they do play with toy guns:

Instead of talking at your child about guns (“Guns are dangerous!” “Don’t do that!”) talk with them. Their understanding of guns is probably less sophisticated than you think, associated more with power and fantasy than with killing or death.

Ask open-ended questions to acknowledge the play and spur conversation: “Looks like you’re having fun. What are you doing?” And gently but consistently underscore the difference between real and toy guns by emphasizing how much fun it is to “pretend.”

Limit your child’s exposure to violence on TV or in video games.

Repeated exposure has been demonstrated in studies to desensitize kids to violence. It is important to limit this exposure, especially in younger kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids be exposed to no more than one to two hours of “quality [television] programming” per day.

Monitor, don’t necessarily prohibit, your child’s gun play.

As long as playing with toy guns doesn’t dominate a child’s time, it’s okay to let them explore it, provided a parent or trusted adult is watching. Place limits like you would on any other activity done in excess. Create rules, like no pointing in someone’s face or if someone says stop, they must stop. They are never to be used to scare or intimidate someone.

If you’re going to buy a toy gun, make sure it really looks like a toy.

Limit the toy guns in your house to those that look nothing like real guns—the more colorful, the better. Encourage “target practice.” Achieving the simple goal of hitting a target with a foam-ball gun can be extremely satisfying for an active little child, and it helps develop hand-eye coordination to boot.

“Six national public health organizations– including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)– issued a joint statement confirming that violent video games, movies and music lead to increased aggressive behavior, particularly in children.”

“Guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination – injuring and killing women every day in the United States. A gun is the weapon most commonly used in domestic homicides. In fact, more than three times as many women are murdered by guns used by their husbands or intimate acquaintances than are killed by strangers’ guns, knives or other weapons combined.”