We are obsessed with Legos in our house. The other night I handed my two year old son a Lego “man” of his very own and he said “oh mom, (disappointed sigh), he does not have a weapon.” This ‘lack of weapon’ situation seemed like a big deal; who taught my 2 year old son the word ‘weapon’ anyway? And why does it matter? He should see the Lego men I grew up with in the 80’s; they had blue or red bodies and those bright yellow heads. Did they even make guns for Lego men three decades ago? I cannot remember.

It made me wonder if boys are genetically and environmentally hardwired for gun play. Throughout most cultures of the world, young boys are fascinated with war and weapon play. Research has shown boys tend to be wired for “dominance”; even male chimpanzees engage in rough-housing at younger ages. Young children tend to view the world in a compartmentalized way, such as good versus bad and big versus small. They enjoy engaging in scenarios where heroes fight villains, monsters, or other imaginary adversaries and win against all odds. My son did not actually use the word gun; he said weapon. Weapons are as old as time, but guns have not really been around that long.

When a child uses an open-ended toy that can be made into anything imaginable, they engage in something called “free play.” Play is an essential part of life for children. Blocks, clay, sticks, and building materials encourage this creativity and innovation because they are not predestined to do one particular thing. Unfortunately over the last few decades, more toys are linked to specific movies, television shows, or videogames and have a predetermined “script” which requires less imagination on the part of our children. Make believe guns do not automatically come with a script.

For this weapon weary mother, it was reassuring to find out no studies show boys who play with pretend weapons are more likely to grow up and become violent than boys who were not exposed. (Did they not have sticks to play with in these studies? Or noodles to make into light sabers? Broom handles? Could they not chew pop tarts into the shape of guns? I always wonder where they find such benevolent boys for these studies.) Some studies have even demonstrated weapon play can provide a sense of stability and control that is beneficial for children experiencing loss through divorce, illness, or unexpected upheaval in their lives.

For my own children, if one injures another, they have to spend some time sitting and thinking about what they could have done differently to change the outcome. They have to explain the alternative strategy to me before returning to play with the other children. I do try to be mindful of the fact sometimes children get frustrated with each other and need to develop better anger management or impulse control skills. That is also a purpose of free play: to help children learn those valuable life lessons so they can develop into confident, compassionate, and resilient human beings.

The take home point is weapons used in play can be fun and even constructive, but if used to hurt others can be damaging over the long term. Teaching children the significant differences between the two is crucial. So my slightly apprehensive self, did indeed, find the very important “weapon” for my son’s Lego man. And yes, I confess, it was a small gun. He made lots of “bang-bang” noises right after I handed it to him and it freaks me out less now than it did before writing this.