November 3, 2017

Navigating guns, weapons and power play in young children by Michelle Libby

Sarah MacLaughlin facilitates discussion
Last Wednesday night, parents and teachers gathered for a facilitated discussion on the behavior of gun play in children. Licensed social worker, Sarah MacLaughlin facilitated the adult education class, to help parents and child care providers understand why children pretend to play with guns and swords and what can or should be done about it. Many of the 19 people in the class were parents of 4-year-old boys, and others were daycare providers who worked with that age group. 

The open and frank discussion helped to inform and educate the class on both sides of the argument.

Parents and teachers came in with questions and MacLaughlin let them express their concerns like: teaching about non-violence around guns, what to do when there’s a real gun, over exposure to media violence - which carries over into play, and providing a safe place for the children to play with pretend weapons.

“My job is helping parents and educators find their own comfort level and meet kids where they are,” said MacLaughlin. 

“There is no more violence than there was 20 years ago, but people are socially and politically making us more aware of the subject,” said one woman named Mandy. 

Whether it’s gun play, battle play or pretending to be superheroes, today’s preschoolers are no different than their parents were 20 years ago.
“I’m terrified of guns,” said mom Bradlee. 

MacLaughlin acknowledged that not everyone is comfortable around guns. One thing to say to the child could be, “Real guns are scary. I know you’re playing.” Parents should be relaxed, not tense when talking about difficult subjects. 

“When we’re not comfortable with topics like divorce, death, sex, we tend to over explain, give bad advice, speak too soon,” said MacLaughlin. Children are able to tell when words don’t match Mom or Dad’s feelings. 

The separation of reality and fantasy is not possible at age four. The brain development of a preschooler isn’t advanced enough to distinguish between real and fake. The age of reason is 7- years-old. After that they might stop dramatic play. 

“Babies are not born hardwired. Everything gets built on top so they can adapt to the language and culture they are born into,” MacLaughlin said. Brains aren’t fully developed until someone is 25 years old. The last part of brain development gives a person the ability to plan ahead and think through decisions. Temper is also a pre-frontal cortex function as is self-regulation. 

When a parent tells a child that guns are bad, children take it a step further. “Guns are bad, so people who use guns are bad.” The problem with this thought is that it excludes law enforcement, military and hunters, MacLaughlin said. The way around this is to be anti-violence, not anti-gun. 

“We don’t hunt. It’s not part of our lifestyle. We’re not against guns if it’s safe,” said one couple.
“You can’t fake being okay with it,” said MacLaughlin.

Gun play in children is like theater. They are working things out from their lives be it struggles, something they saw on TV or the stress of everyday life through acting. 

“This lets them figure it out on their own and communicate on their own,” said a mom.
Although the world is the safest it’s ever been, according to MacLaughlin, the constant media exposure is tripping us up. “When children see guns used in the media they are more likely to pick up a gun and play with it more,” MacLaughlin said, citing a research article published in September.
“Violence, competition and games are a part of life,” said one parent. 

“This gives them control over their lives,” said a dad named Aaron. 

MacLaughlin explained the principle of “playful parenting”, which is where if a child pretends to shoot you “the only response is to drop on the floor and play dead. Meet them in their play,” she said. There are adult lenses we see things through, or kid lenses. Sometimes it’s better to use the kid lenses when playing with the preschoolers. 

“It’s a way for them to feel powerful because it upsets grownups. Play is a child’s first language,” MacLaughlin said. The children need to have grown up support to talk about boundaries, conflict resolutions and consent. “If you shut it down, you’re taking away opportunities,” she added. There is also a sense of shame if children are told to stop. 

One day care provider discussed a time when a child was knowledgeable about the Revolutionary War and encouraged his friends to have a battle and a funeral all the while teaching facts about the war. 

“What started with gun play made a chance to make this kid a leader,” said Heather Marden. “From the educator prospective I wanted to know how to make [gun play] seem appropriate and safe to my families and deliver information from the common ground. There are opportunities in play.” 

Many times, when gun play happens, it might only last for three months, then stop once the child has worked through what he saw or heard. 

“For playdates, ask if there are guns in the house or unsecured guns in the home,” said MacLaughlin. It’s okay to ask. Another thing to ask the children is, “What do you think that means?” Sometimes just knowing what questions to ask helps a parent determine how much to share with their child. 

“This got me thinking of the role play. It definitely changed my thinking of how the boys play, what they do and why they do it,” said provider Denise Varney.

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