“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!”
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).