"What this kid did to my son in the playground left me speechless."

Note: This is not the child in the story.

“I have a gun and I’m going to kill you.”

Those weren’t the words I expected to hear at 8am in the playground, bleary eyed with a takeaway coffee and two kids in tow. I was feeding my daughter crackers and surreptitiously checking Facebook when my son approached a group of older boys wrestling in the sandpit. I was the only parent in the area. Noticing him hovering on the edges of their game, one of the boys, who looked about four or five, turned to him.

“You can’t play!” he shouted. “You’re just a baby.”

“I’m not a baby; I’m a boy,” my son beamed, missing the tone.

“No,” the boy responded, “I’m a boy because I have a gun.”

The boy then walked up to my three-year-old, raised a plastic revolver and aimed it at his chest. He then uttered these words: “I have a gun and I’m going to kill you.”

What would you have said in this situation? After I got over the initial shock and searched in vain for a madly apologetic parent to come scurrying from the wings, I berated the boy.

“That’s a nasty thing to say to someone, you should apologise!” I huffed in the manner of a 1950’s boarding school mistress, my voice whinier and less commanding than I had hoped. My son stared. The boy ran off. My daughter ignored us and ate crackers off the floor, leaving me with no one to fume to except a passing bird.

Throughout that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about that plastic revolver. The exchange in the playground niggled at me. While Barbies have transformed in our eyes from innocuous dolls to harbingers of sexualisation and unrealistic body image, what about toy guns? Should they be put under the same scrutiny? Does violent behaviour start in the playground, with a garish piece of plastic shaped like a gun?

I discovered the answer to this question is complicated. Ask parents whether they ban toy guns and some will smile and shake their heads, as if you’ve suggested putting their child on the Paleo Diet. “It would be useless, as my kids can turn anything into a gun: a stick, a piece of lego, even a carrot,” one friend replied. Other parents prefer a zero tolerance approach. “We had a weapons crate at our front door,” another friend recalls. “My brother’s friends had to disarm when they arrived at our place. The plastic guns, knives, swords and grenades that some of them arrived with!”

An anti-gun ad which was produced after a number of horrific massacres in America last year.

Unsurprisingly, watching – in some cases experiencing – violence destroy a community affects how parents view toy guns. After the horrific 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, many US parenting bloggers claimed gunplay encouraged a culture of violence amongst children. Last year, the federal district of Brazil banned the sale of toy guns as part of an effort to reduce violence in the area (Brazil is listed as the seventh most violent nation in the world).


On the other hand, parenting book author Christine Gross-Loh says current research doesn’t link gunplay with violence desensitization in kids. “It can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behaviour in social settings,” she wrote in The Atlantic. Similarly, the British government has advised preschools to “resist their natural instinct” to stop boys using pretend weapons in games, arguing it encourages healthy risk taking in children.

Having just endured the ‘if-I-hear-mummy-I’m-bored-one-more-time-I’ll-bawl’ drag before the start of preschool, here’s what I’ve learnt about kids and play

Aggression can come from anywhere. I’ve seen pass the parcel turn into a vicious power struggle between three-year-olds. I’ve seen overpriced, eco-friendly toys hurled at unsuspecting heads. I’ve even seen one boy ride his sister like a horse, using her hair as the reigns and kicking her poor haunches (he may or may not have been my child). Not one of these situations involved a toy weapon.

It’s not the gunplay that’s the problem, but the values children bring to it.

As a parent, the most interesting part of the incident at the playground came afterwards, during the car ride home. After digesting what had happened, my son asked me if he could have a toy gun.

Sophia Russell: “It’s not the gunplay that’s the problem, but the values children bring to it.”

“Okaaaay… that’s an idea… why do you want one?” I gabbled, buying time to think.

“So I can fight like a boy!”

And that’s the heart of the issue, isn’t it? It wasn’t the gunplay that bothered me, but my son’s misguided definition of what it means to be a ‘real boy’.

So I took a deep breath, prepared to get all philosophical with my three-year-old and dived in. I told him that he didn’t need to fight to be a boy. Instead, thinking of his father who is a wonderful role model, I told him that a boy speaks kindly to others. That a boy is gentle. That a boy stands up to bullies. Then, warming to my topic, I added that a boy shares what he has, Never Hits Girls and doesn’t ride his sister like a horse.

My son looked at me, his brown eyes bearing the profound weight of wisdom I had just imparted on him. I waited for his reply.

“Mummy, can I have donuts for morning tea?”

I exhaled and drove out of the car park, while Justine Clarke sang a song about a watermelon. For now, the toy guns could wait. At least for another day.

Sophia Russell is a former journalist who now works as a mother-of-two and freelance writer. She blogs over at The Fountainside.

Over to you: Do you think playing with guns promotes violence in children? Or can your kids turn anything into weapons? Do you think toy guys should be banned altogether?