Cops and Robbers

Cops and Robbers, Spiderman and the Green Goblin, Cowboys and Indians. Our children’s young lives are filled with games and stories about good versus bad, or good triumphing against evil. Many of these games and stories can teach valuable life lessons, but there can also be some negative consequences which we may fail to consider. Educational Psychologist Claire Maher explores the risks about these games, as well as the risk around toy guns and weapons.

When children begin to play, particularly imaginatively, there is a general movement toward rough and tumble play for boys and more nurturing play for girls (this is, of course, not always the case, but generally speaking is true).  Boys will wrestle with one another while girls will play ‘families’ or ‘school.’ For years, guns and weapons will have made part of a child’s playroom or a school fantasy room. These may be accompanied by handcuffs to play ‘Police’, a hook to play ‘Pirates’ or a Stetson hat to play ‘Cowboys.’ Only with an increase in violence, particularly gun violence, has there been concern about supplying of toy guns in schools or in playrooms at home. As a psychologist, I’ve seen children in my personal and professional life whose parents have not given them guns to play with and children who have toy or even pellet or BB guns. Some of the children who don’t have guns at their disposal will run into the garden and pick up sticks and pretend to shoot their peers, or they use Lego and make a gun that they point at me as therapist or around the room. On the other hand, some of the children I’ve seen who have guns at their disposal (as part of their toy box, or in the therapy room) are often not in the slightest bit interested, and never pick it up. Having a gun doesn’t mean a child will play with it, just like not having one doesn’t mean they won’t try and make one themselves.

When asked about her thoughts on giving children guns to play with, Karen Smith, a teacher from Pietermaritzburg says “definitely not! Not in today’s world.”  She explains that there is enough violence on television and that giving children guns seems to condone aggressive behaviour.  She understands that children will make guns out of sticks or blocks, but feels there doesn’t seem to be as much aggression behind the behaviour.  She explains that when war in Iraq initially began the school at which she taught removed army toys from their sensopathic trays. She also feels that in the same way that corporal punishment and physical discipline has been reassessed over the years, so must access to violence inducing toys be reassessed.

When is it serious?

‘Shooting’ of a toy gun to a young child may simply be play, imagination, fantasy, and more about power than causing harm.  Children may not realise what shooting somebody means and their intention is not inherently aggressive or violent, or intended to cause harm. There are times, however, where this play becomes more serious, and may be a cause of concern for parents or caregivers. When gun play becomes hurtful and about cruelty and abuse, as opposed to imaginative and around power, then parents may need to start worrying. When gun play is accompanied by violent verbal threats and language there may be cause for concern. When a child’s only conflict management strategies are hurtful or violent ones, there is cause for concern.

Apart from in sport such as clay pigeon shooting, guns cause harm and damage to people, animals and property. In the police force they serve to protect but using them generally results in harm to somebody else.  Condoning of guns suggests that violence is an appropriate or healthy way to deal with anger and strong negative feelings – towards ourselves or others.  As role models for our children – whether as parents, teachers, therapists or religious leaders, we need to model appropriate and healthy manners in which feelings can be dealt with – instead of violence. Our children need to be encouraged to find outlets for their frustration and anger that do not involve hurting themselves or others. While toy guns cannot harm, they can be realistic and make light of deadly weapons. Children also need to know that guns can harm, and that in real life people do not get extra lives like in video games, or recover from injuries like in cartoons.

What role can parents take?

Crime, particularly violent crime is an unfortunate reality that we as South Africans face daily in the media. As much as we may try and protect our children from seeing or hearing too much, they will inevitably be exposed in some form – whether via school friends, social media, or when listening to the radio on the way to school. It is important for parents and caregivers to create a healthy balance in terms of exposure to crime and violence. While we want to protect our children from news that is too horrifying or graphic, we need to also be realistic in explaining news to our children, and creating awareness in them on how to protect themselves.

With great power comes great responsibility

While it is generally the villains fighting against Superman, Spiderman and Batman who make use of weapons, these movies or series do glorify physical attacks and violence as being ways to manage conflict.  Superheroes are admired and often become role models for our children.  While they have positive characteristics such as bravery, loyalty, and the well-being of humanity at the core of their missions, they are more often than not defending themselves against their attackers – sometimes giving our children a warped sense of conflict management even amidst the positive messages behind the story. Superheroes can be useful tools for teaching life lessons, provided that their positive attributes are emphasised, and less focus is placed on some of the more outrageous or less desirable characteristics (such as using physical harm to gain power).

As human beings every day is a struggle of good versus bad. We try to be better people, and admire the positive and ‘good’ in ourselves and others, while dismissing the ‘bad’ or the parts we don’t like. Children are no exception, but their forum to explore these feelings is play. Cops and Robbers and Cowboys and Indians are two popular childhood games. Duos such as Batman and the Joker, Spiderman and the Green Goblin or Superman and Lex Luthor are classic examples in the media where good fights bad. Both involve the use of weapons in the fight against the other. One party is good, one party is bad.  The important part is that the lesson or moral of good overcoming evil (which invariably takes place) should not be synonymous with violence and physical power struggles. There needs to be a balance between teaching our children how to do what’s right in the face of wrong, but also to do so without harming somebody else.

In the end the choice does come down to the parent. If the toy gun is being used in such a way that suggest fantasy and imagination as opposed to cruelty and harm, then it feels acceptable to let a child have a gun as a toy. If the gun and using the gun becomes an outlet for aggression and frustration it is perhaps necessary to reconsider – more effective and appropriate coping mechanisms need to be established in this case. As with anything, parents need to model appropriate behaviour and coping strategies for frustration, and allow their child to openly express themselves in a non-harmful manner.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine

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