If you follow the latest news about Great Britain's royal family, you probably have heard about the controversy that erupted when Prince George — the 4-year-old son of Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife, Kate Middleton — was seen on the sidelines at a polo match, playing with a toy handgun.
For many, Prince George's game of cops-and-robbers raised a question that's been troubling parents more and more, in an age when mass shootings seem to occur with horrifying frequency. Should young children be allowed to play with toy versions of the weapons that are killing other kids and adults? In an article for Vogue, writer Michelle Ruiz described a conversation she had with a fellow mother who asked: "What are we feeding our children, in the metaphorical sense, when we hand them guns to play with?"
The Public Perception
After a recent school shooting in Indiana, a reader's letter to the Indianapolis Star voiced a similar sentiment. "Children should not have even cap pistols or toy guns to play with because it teaches the wrong lesson," he wrote. And here is a 2017 Huffington Post article from Wendy Kennar, a former teacher, who explains "Why Our Family Doesn't Allow Toy Guns."
At least one retailer has already stopped selling some types of toy guns. In February, when Walmart announced that it would raise the purchase age for firearms at its stores to 21, the company also said that it would remove from its website items "resembling assault-style rifles," including toys. (Walmart stopped selling actual "modern sporting rifles," including the AR-15, back in 2015.)
For all the anxiety and outrage it stimulates, there's relatively little scientific research on the effect that playing with toy guns has upon children. And although some studies suggest it may be linked to aggressive behavior in childhood, no clear connection has been established between childhood play with toy guns and adult attitudes or propensity for violence. Two psychologists who've done research on children and toy guns think that parenting is a much more important indicator of aggressive behavior.
Charles W. Turner, a psychologist on the staff of the Oregon Research Institute, has more than 40 years of experience conducting treatment and prevention research on children, adolescents and young adults with behavior problems. Back in the mid-1970s, he and colleague Diane Goldsmith published one of the earliest papers on the subject, in which they compared a group of children who played with toy guns to another group who played with toy airplanes, and kids who played with other toys. All were observed for signs of antisocial behavior, such as aggression or rule-breaking.
"The purpose of the airplanes was to control for the fact that you're introducing a novel toy," Turner explains. "Is it the novelty of the toy leading to the acting out, or whether it's something specific about the gun?"
Turner and Goldsmith found that toy guns produced a "reliably higher" rate of antisocial behavior than the average of the toy airplanes and the other toys, though the toy airplanes also increased the rate of kids misbehaving as well.
But today, Turner, who moved on from what he calls "hypothetical studies" to studying actual young offenders, cautions against reading too much into his early work. From a practical standpoint, he says, "it would be hard to look at whether playing with guns as a child affected attitudes as an adult."
Based on his own work as well as that of other researchers, he suspects that "playing with guns as a child is one small part of a bigger picture of what leads to adult aggressive behavior. It's a small, nearly trivial part." He puts more weight on other influences, such as how a family relates to a child and their pattern of interactions.
In a study published in the journal Early Education and Development in 1992 researchers Malcolm W. Watson and Ying Peng observed 36 3-to-5-year-old children in free play in a daycare center, and coded their behavior for the amount of real aggression, pretend aggression, rough-and-tumble play, and non-aggressive pretend play. They also had parents fill out a questionnaire to gather data such as whether kids played with toy guns at home — 56 percent, mostly boys, did — as well as whether they watched TV programs with aggression and the amount of physical punishment that parents used for discipline.
The researchers found that toy gun play, along with parental punishment, were associated with a higher level of real aggression, though not with pretend aggression.
A Combination of Factors
Watson, the George and Frances Levin Professor of Psychology at Brandeis University, cautions in an email that "there are so many factors that act as antecedents to real aggression that this one study could not evaluate the entire story. Various factors may interact to increase the likelihood of aggression in children and children developing long-term aggressive tendencies."
Watson explains that the study was designed to pit the cathartic theory of aggression, in which aggressive fantasy play might reduce actual frustration and aggression, with the cuing theory, in which toy guns and aggressive play would act as cues and practice for real aggression.
"The more toy gun play that was used, along with play with toy guns, the more real aggression boys showed in their preschool," he writes. "Boys showed much more toy gun play than did girls, and probably because of this, there was no relation found between toy gun play and real aggression in girls. Interestingly, we also found that the more toy gun play that was used, the less non-aggressive pretend play (including pretend aggression) children showed. And non-aggressive pretend play is seen as a good thing for children.
"So, in effect, there was no evidence for a cathartic effect, but there was evidence for a probable cuing effect. Playing with toy guns may be increased when some children already show more aggression, or reciprocally real aggression may be cued and increased when children play more with toy guns. It just didn't seem that anything good came from playing with toy guns."
Corporal Punishment More Determinative
But Watson also notes that the strongest factor that predicted real aggression in preschoolers — more than toy guns or even watching violent TV — was the amount and frequency of parents spanking their kids or using other corporal punishment.
"We have done subsequent studies that showed that children who were more aggressive led to parents using more corporal punishment over time, but that the use of more corporal punishment led to even more aggression in the children," Watson says. "Parental use of corporal punishment was part of an ongoing negative spiral."
As for playing with toy guns, "Nothing positive seems to come from it, and it may have some negative effects (at least in boys), but there are other factors involving parents that have even more negative consequences," Watson says.
"I think pretend play overall has a great influence on children's development and thinking, and so I suspect that toy gun play may have long-term consequences, but I also suspect that parental attitudes toward guns and also parents' modeling of aggression will have even stronger influences."
Watson notes that despite his misgivings about toy guns, he chose not to ban them in his own home, and never stopped his four sons from pretend play with them. But more important, he says: "though we had strict discipline, we never used corporal punishment with them. That is the part I particularly believe in."