Dilemmas: Bang, bang, you're dead - OK?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A healthy fusillade of support for the toy-gun brigade followed Gwen's dilemma last week. She'd been at pains to bring up her son in a non-sexist way, and hated the fact that he and his friends constantly 'shot' each other in the park when playing detectives. To compound matters, his grandparents were about to give him a toy gun for his birthday. She didn't know what to do.

But readers who'd toted guns as kids knew exactly what to do, and the consensus was, as Hugh Lee of Richmond, Surrey, put it, 'This Gwen sounds rather a twit]'

'Little boys have played with make-believe firearms for decades, if not centuries, and we haven't all grown up into homicidal Mr Blondes or unthinking militarists,' wrote Gerry Morris of Reading. And Jonathan Shapiro of Kensington, another non- mass murderer, wrote: 'I, too, once liked nothing better than to play with 'guns' - the louder the better - and, needless to say, I haven't been near one since.'

Then there were the views from other mums who had once felt just like Gwen but who'd learnt that in some cases nature is stronger than nurture. 'I, too, used to deny my son guns, until the day I discovered him biting his sandwich (peanut butter and wholemeal, natch) into the shape of a pistol,' wrote Carol Richards of Stoke Newington, London. 'He now has a selection of guns, swords, shields, helmets, spears, etc.'

Jill Morgan of Ulverston, Cumbria, had the same thoughts until she bought her children a set of wooden bricks 'and saw my younger daughter using an L-shaped one as a revolver and saying, 'Bang] Bang]' '

While Julia Smith of Norwich is basically anti-gun, her children continue to shoot each other 'using sticks, bananas, and even fingers. I feel that as this type of behaviour is universal, it is all part of growing up in our world, where violence is easily observable on TV. I had six- shooters as a tomboy in the Fifties and passed through the phase unscathed. The important message to get across to children is that violence harms people, and that real guns inflict real harm. Watching adults hitting each other or regularly beating their children in real life is much more likely to do harm.'

What happens if you deny a child a gun? Some believed, like Bruno Bettelheim in his book A Good Enough Parent, that 'preventing this kind of play will only make the child feel deprived and more aggressive, and the guns will take on a magic, forbidden quality'. This is precisely what happened in Elaine Stewart's home in Glasgow. Her son had 'big, noisy, plastic guns, because he liked the noise. But his little friend wasn't allowed them and when he came to our house he used to go berserk.'

As a man who survived a concentration camp, and therefore not likely to give a verdict that would encourage any kind of sadistic behaviour in adult life, Bettelheim probably had most insight of all into the gun dilemma. By banning guns, he wrote, 'parents rob the child of the valuable lesson that if we try to shoot others they will shoot back and everybody will lose'. He also believed that 'shooting games provide outlets for accumulated frustrations and thus are apt to reduce them. Hence the child's aggressive and hostile feelings can be more readily controlled by him than when a parent prevents their discharge, rendering reduction through symbolic play impossible.'

His best point, perhaps, was the effect a parent's anxiety about guns would have on a child. What kind of parent fears that his or her son may become a violent person, even a killer? As 'a child gains a view of himself primarily from his parent . . . this thought is far more damaging to the child's emotional well- being and his sense of self- worth than any play with guns can possibly be.'

What I'd like to know now is whether parents feel the same about little girls and Barbie dolls, since some parents forbid them for fear their daughters may turn into air- head Miss World entrants if they're allowed so much as to comb the dolls' shiny nylon hair. But perhaps that's another story. . . .