Toy guns might seem silly and harmless for children to play with. But the issue of guns and children is a serious one.

As the one year anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary nears, gun play has never been more controversial. Earlier this fall, an 8-year-old Florida boy was suspended for pointing his finger like a gun.

In this week s Parent to Parent, Malia Jacobson of ParentMap is here to talk about what the experts are saying about toy gun play.

With so much violence in media and video games, parents get concerned when they see their children pointing their fingers and saying bang. Should they be worried?

It's completely understandable that toy gun play makes parents uncomfortable. For one thing, many schools have a zero-tolerance policy for gun play, so parents want to squelch it at home so that it doesn't follow kids to school and get them in trouble.

For another, it's a stereotypical boy behavior that's very stubbornly persistent, even in families that try to dial down those traditional gender roles. It's just plain worrisome for parents-you see your sweet innocent child holding a hairbrush like a gun and shooting at your family pet, and you wonder if he'll grow up to be violent like these figures we see in the news.

But most experts strongly believe that there's nothing to worry about, and that gun play is a natural part of childhood.

So it s an inevitable part of childhood play parents should just accept?

There are definitely parents, teachers, and childcare providers who would rather not see pretend gun play at all. But it does seem to be fairly inevitable. Pretend gun play is seen across cultures. Gender-influenced toy preferences appear across cultures by one year of age; by three, children overwhelmingly choose toys associated with their own gender. Even primates distinguish stereotypical male toys from female ones, according to research.

A growing number of experts and child-led play advocates say that pretend gun play absolutely has a place in early childhood.

So there may even be benefits? Banning gun play can be harmful?

Yes, as strange as that sounds. When parents see a toy gun, they often see an instrument of violence, but children don't see things that way. The pretend gun is more of a symbol of power, leadership, authority, strength, and control. Pretend gun play can help children unravel these complicated concepts in the safe realm of play. This type of play can actually be a rich learning experience as kids contemplate their power and right versus wrong.

The psychologist interviewed for this article said that when parents ban this type of play, kids take it underground, so to speak. They'll still do it, but they may feel shameful about this innate behavior.

Are there guidelines to keep gun play positive?

Yes, absolutely. First: Kids shouldn't hurt each other during pretend gun battles. Rules such as not pointing or shooting at others faces and not shooting family members or pets are important in laying the framework for safe imaginary play.

Parents don't have to agree to purchase or keep toy guns in the home if they're uncomfortable about it. Kids can get creative with household objects like paper towel rolls or empty soap dispensers.

Keep an eye out for red flags during pretend gun play, like hurting people or animals accidentally, lack of remorse or empathy, or other aggressive behaviors. These are cause for concern, and may warrant a chat with your child's pediatrician.

Limiting exposure to violent TV programs and video games may be a better way to protect boys from aggressive influences than banning gun play. Research from Ohio State University shows a strong connection between playing violent video games and increased aggressive behaviors. This link is much stronger than anything that exists for pretend gun play.

Seattle Children s and Town Hall are sponsoring a forum called Gun Violence: Keeping Children Safe this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall in recognition of the one year anniversary of Sandy Hook.

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