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Outlook: Gun-Shy Parenting

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Jonathan Turley
Law Professor, George Washington University
Monday, February 26, 2007; 12:00 PM

Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, was online Monday, Feb. 26, at noon ET to talk about his Sunday Outlook article on the psychology surrounding toy guns -- both of his boys, whom he lets play with them, and of the other parents who shun his family because of it.

My Boys Like Shootouts. What's Wrong With That? ( Post, Feb. 25)

The transcript follows.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Hi Mr. Turley -- As a parent of two kids (girl 16 and boy 13), I read your article with great interest. I'm also a former newspaper reporter who wrote about this issue several times. I agree that there has definitely been an overreaction by many parents to this type of gun play. It does seem a rather natural type of play, especially for boys etc., But my husband and I really just didn't like the idea of having even toy guns in our house. So we followed the idea developed by the Lion and Lamb group (which since has disbanded): if our kids wanted to make a gun from Legos, okay, but once they were done using the Legos to make a gun the Legos could be back to just being Legos. Same thing with toast (which my son bit into gun shapes at times). He could always eat the toast! But toy guns are toy guns. They can't be anything else. To me, allowing kids to create their own guns from materials that could always be transformed to something else seems to provide a workable compromise on the toy gun issue. Your thoughts?

Jonathan Turley: We actually followed the identical rule at the beginning, but the boys would receive swords and the like as presents. Also, they continued to clamor for such items when we went to Disney, etc. When we watched them at their friends' homes (with swords and guns) we were not disturbed by the play and decided to let them have a few such toys. We really have not seen any negative results -- unlike my brothers and myself (who were barred from such toys), they rarely play such games. Our only major problem has been with swords (commercial or improvised) in causing little injuries. We then remove all swords for a period of time, like a weekend. For the most part such injuries have proven rare.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Prof. Turley -- your article was the first I read this weekend, because as a parent of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old I worry about the same things. So far I've discouraged gun play -- I'm not a psychologist, but I've Googled the subject of guns and kids, and my impression is that researchers are divided on the issue but I found it hard to determine because there were few openly accessible articles online. (Note to researchers: why not put PDF's of your research online? It's fairly common in other fields.) Anyway, it seems the case for whether toy guns promote aggression could be made either way. Did you get this sense from your larger search of the literature? Any child developmental experts out there that care to opine?

Jonathan Turley: Frankly, I was surprised in speaking with child psychologists and development experts that they were pretty uniform in rejecting a zero-tolerance approach. When I first did my research on the computer, there were some experts who discouraged the use of the toys -- often citing the increased likelihood of violent interplay or aggression. However, even in speaking with experts like Nancy Carlsson-Paige (as noted in the column), there was not support for the more extreme approach. Local experts that I spoke with at my kids' schools also questioned the usefulness and wisdom of a zero-tolerance approach. That being said, more flexible experts still encourage parents to emphasize alternative toys -- for example, William Pollack, author of "Real Boys" and "Real Boys' Voices" encourages parents to encourage the use of alternative toys (as we have), but also warns that confrontations over gun play are worse than simply allowing innocent play.

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McLean, Va.: I'm a long-time gun owner, all-around firearms enthusiast and am trained as an NRA rifle instructor. When I started having children (I have three boys), I felt like they shouldn't play with toy guns because I didn't want them to think of guns as toys. I didn't want to discourage them from handling and shooting guns when the time came, but I thought it would be safer if they grew up respecting firearms as objects to be taken seriously and not as toys. But even though I never bought them any toy guns, the kids would build their own out of Legos or other things. It appeared that whether I bought them toy guns or not, they still would play with them. So I decided that the best I could do was to teach them safe gun handling using the toy guns they made. Today they all have handled and shot real guns (they are 13, 11 and 7 years old), respect them and know how to handle them safely. I was wondering whether you or any of your readers had a similar experience.

Jonathan Turley: I have heard from many gun owners with similar stories that use the gun toys to teach safe handling and care. That certainly is a positive use of the toys, but many parents still worry about the inclination toward aggression. In our experience, it has been the swords, not the guns, that cause the greatest aggression and injuries. We tend to watch sword play much for carefully for that reason.

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Germantown, Md.: My wife and I have avoided buying toy guns for our boys (ages 5 and 3), not because we're against them but rather because we're delaying the inevitable. However having been a boy, I expected them to shoot each other with whatever looks like a gun (the Florida and Oklahoma pieces of the US map puzzle work quite well). I wonder if those parents who treat gun-playing children and their parents as pariahs are consistent in their beliefs and shun Barbies because those may lead to negative self images, or Teletubbies, because those may lead to obesity. Or is their cautious parenthood only for toy guns?

Jonathan Turley: The gender preference issue has produced the greatest levels of debate from my limited research -- many experts insist that there are not hardwired preferences while others disagree. In our own experience and those of our friends, the gender preference is not just clear but virtually universal. Our boys did play with dolls but not in the same way and they quickly moved to more masculine figures.

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Rockville, Md.: The overwhelming majority of gun owners use them responsibly. Do you do anything to insist that gunplay include elements like military discipline, target identification, police protecting the public, or sword fighting as the sport of fencing, as opposed to letting your kids play "indiscriminately machine gun everyone?"

Jonathan Turley: I feel a bit guilty in answering this one. You absolutely are correct that we should emphasize this more, but we have not. We do teach them not to shoot at people other than their friends in these games. In our defense, we really have not witnessed this type of My Lai conduct. The games tend to be very focused and dramatic.

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Fairfax, Va.: Professor Turley, might a parent unwittingly incur civil or administrative liability if their child, lets say, spooks an old lady by pointing a toy gun at her while playing on the sidewalk? Could she sue for emotional distress? Have their been any cases out there involving toy guns? As an aside -- you do a great Torts class at GW!

Jonathan Turley: Get back to your torts textbook and stop playing on the Internet.

Seriously, there is very little basis for liability for a number of reasons. First, many of the youngest children are viewed as legally incapable of negligence. Second, there is a lack of intent or recklessness for intentional torts. Third, this is not considered severe or outrageous conduct to justify emotional distress claims. I have never seen such a case.

Now, we have res ipsa tonight so get back to work.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As the father of two boys, I enjoyed your article. The only guns we own are squirt guns but it certainly does appear to be hard-wired into our boys' DNA to pretend-fight with (squirt) guns, plastic swords, sticks, etc., using themes of good vs. evil.

Jonathan Turley: It does indeed. On the good side, they often construct elaborate forts and fantasies around these games. My only concern is that my older boys tend to view my youngest boy always as the enemy apparent. As a result, I will at times have to join Aidan in a coalition of the willing.

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Arlington, Va.: There was another similar article in the Post a few months ago discussing the horror that other parents felt at the author's willingness to let her kids play outside by themselves. As a 29 year old who doesn't have any kids yet, but played outside without supervision all the time as a kid, I was amazed. The article blamed much of this on the media and their overdramatization of the few kidnappings that there are. It seems that this would also play a role in the toy gun situation and that the proliferation of 24-hour news networks only pushes things further to the extreme. How can do you think this trend be pushed back toward the rational?

washingtonpost.com: Some Parents Defy Trends, Allow Kids to Roam Unsupervised (Post, Aug. 27, 2006)

Jonathan Turley: This is an interesting debate. I must confess to be an over-wrought parent -- I only recently relented in allowing my eight-year-old to bike around the block. I am a bit off the charts in that sense. Funnily enough, when I grew up in Chicago, I would leave Saturday morning on my bike and sometimes come home at dinner. It was a different period. I don't think it is just about the greater attention given to predators (or conversely the little attention given back then) -- there are a host of dangers that we all fret about and there is a generational difference. When I first starting having kids, I once told my late father that I was a wreck all the time worrying about them. I had never felt so vulnerable and I would not have expected that I would be so as a parent. My Dad who had five kids (to my then two kids) simply shrugged and said, "Well I had room for attrition." He was joking, but there was a different view among parents in his generation. I do not think that my level of obsessive supervision is good and am trying to force myself to cut back. I may need a twelve-step program but I am making a little progress -- I no longer follow Ben secretly as he rides around the block.

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Locust Grove, Va.: I commend Professor Turley for introducing his young children to guns. They should learn early in life that guns are neither toys, nor mysterious, exciting objects for them to play with.

Jonathan Turley: Thanks, but I have been struck with all of the like stories shared by other parents. I have written more than 500 columns in my time, but only a few garnered this level of feedback with so many interesting stories from parents.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: In my childhood and my husband's (1950s) every child played with guns. We have a little plastic one from the '50s we keep as a remembrance. I have a 1953 black-and-white photo of myself all dressed up as a cowgirl with my gun on my hip. Both of us are law-abiding, productive citizens, so how could those experiences have been negative for us?

Jonathan Turley: I have the same picture (though not in a cowgirl outfit). I loved playing cowboy and soldier around our building. I remember how real it felt. We have made great strides in some areas -- back then, toy guns looked exactly like real ones. This led to accidental shootings which now have fallen dramatically with laws requiring bright colors and distinctive elements for toys.

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Alexandria, Va.: What do you say to the concern that a child with a toy gun might be mistaken by a police officer (or anyone else) as a child with a real gun? It's a concern I have, and one I know that my friends whose children are "not white" have in particular, given the willingness of some people to fire a gun in response to a perceived threat.

Jonathan Turley: I looked into this. As I mentioned in an earlier note, the number of such shootings have fallen dramatically since colorful elements and other features were required. Nevertheless, there still are some real looking-toys out there, which present a danger. Our guns are either bright colors or pirate/flintlocks that never could be confused with a real one. This is something that parents have to watch carefully, I agree.

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Reston, Va.: It sounds like there is too much political correctness in that neighborhood -- nothing wrong with playing with toy guns as long as they are fighting for the good guys. They could try amateur radio, but antennas are against the law too. I guess the land of the free is not so free any more.

Jonathan Turley: I don't blame the concern, only the reaction. This particularly is the case in the draconian response to innocent mistakes at schools. As an educator, I am appalled by the blind senselessness of some administrators who would expel a student for bringing a squirt gun to school rather than sending home reprimand.

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Washington: I have a 4-year-old son who is totally uninterested in guns, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians or what I called traditional army games. When he and his friends play "army men" they usually build forts, drive tanks and look out for the enemy, but as I witnessed a few weeks ago, the enemy almost always is "man vs nature," or as my son put it "then a tornado blows the fort down and now we have to build it again." When they play cowboys they almost always have to ride their horses after lost calves or get bitten by snakes. When they play spaceman they have to build rockets to get to Mars. Guns are not a part of childhood in 2006 -- that ship sailed in the 1980s -- and for you to force them on your kids, as you specifically stated in the Conestoga Wagon part of your article, will only make them outsiders in their peer group. I cannot fathom why a parent would handicap their kids like that and make them seem weird to their friends.

Jonathan Turley: I can only disagree. I think that it is great that your kids experience such constructive play, but our wagon was a huge learning experience (for me as well). Guns were part of the West and they were included. As for games, we do not force them on our children. We do not force our kids to do any form of play -- we let them pursue their fantasies and we watch closely to be sure that they do so in an appropriate way. Experts that I read and interviewed uniformly agreed with this approach. There is no handicap that I can seen, they are normal boys playing normally with a variety of toys, including swords and guns. From my response of more than 200 e-mails, it does not appear that this ship has sailed. To the contrary, there are about 200 positive e-mails from parents and only six negative e-mails. This does not mean that my kids or your kids are handicapped, it is only that most parents do not impose this "no weapon" rule and do not find any negative results from allowing such play.

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Arlington, Va.: I just sent you an e-mail suggesting that gun play is American-conceived. Not all children throughout the world indulge in gun play. What happens in American is not universal. I would be interested in your reaction to my e-mail. As a question I ask: Is gun play an American invention, or is it common to all people? Secondly, what did boys do before the invention of guns?

Jonathan Turley: I am not sure how to answer this. You may be correct, though I wonder if some weapon play like swords is not more universal. Some experts like Nancy Carlsson-Paige, co-author (with Diane Levin) of the book ''Who's Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys, do view much of the fixation to be driven by marketing and television. That would certainly make sense as to guns. However, having said that, in my travels in Europe and Asia, I saw a lot of the same games. I just returned from China and Japan -- in both countries I saw kids playing swords fights, though there may be more of a cultural emphasis on this point of play.

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Gainesville, Va.: I grew up in a female-centric households (many sisters, no brothers) with no guns, and with parents who carefully limited my TV viewing, at least at a young age -- basically, the only exposure I had to guns was through Elmer Fudd shooting at Bugs Bunny. And yet, to this day, I still think of Florida, Oklahoma, and a few others as "gun states", because their pieces in my USA map puzzle could readily be used as pretend guns. Playing with fake guns and swords is just what little boys do. Policing real kid-on-kid violence, such as hitting others with sticks or throwing rocks at them, is one thing, but worrying about pretend games of cops and robbers for their own sake is just silly. Also, if people are concerned about gun violence, they should worry about the possibility of real guns in the homes of your children's playmates. Toys are just toys.

Jonathan Turley: I actually spend a lot of time speaking to my kids about real guns. My greatest concern is not toy guns but when a kid comes upon a real one in some neighbor's house.

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Former DC resident in Ohio: I have a 6-year old son who begged for toy guns for a number of years. We had none until this year when I finally gave in, let him have an army-themed birthday party, and he received a number of them as gifts. It does bother me to see him pointing the gun and saying he's going to shoot people because I don't think he has any understanding of what that really means. How have you talked to your boys about what guns can do and why they are very serious things in real life?

Jonathan Turley: Yes, we have had these discussions. Indeed, we had a Boot Camp party for Ben a few years ago. It was a great experience that only marginally involved play guns. The recent party described in my column was also a lot of fun despite the high level of gun play. At one point, I heard a boy giving another boy instructions on safe handling.

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Princeton, N.J.: Frankly I don't believe anybody knows anything about how behavior as a child affects one later in life. We are told violent PC games cause violence, but Far Eastern countries with extremely violent games don't have much teen violence. I was lucky in having daughters so, I didn't have this problem (I had others). Personally I have never even touched a gun.

Jonathan Turley: My daughter is only 18 months, but already I can see the difference with her brothers. There is no research that I could find that links future development or problems to weapon play -- the most common negative observation is that aggressive play increases in the presence of toy weapons, which sound right. On the other hand, we use these games to teach restraint and to punish over-aggression.

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Bowie, Md.:"Gunless Parenting" has been common long enough now (20-plus years) to conduct research on its effect on later criminal and violent tendencies. Are there controlled results yet?

Jonathan Turley: As I noted earlier there are no studies that I have seen showing any long-term negative consequences to weapon play or positive result of a zero-tolerance approach. It appears to have little impact one way or the other.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Mr. Turley -- thank you for your article. As a mother of a son, I too underwent the same metamorphosis to reason. Let me state that aggressive behavior should never be tolerated (this includes the neighbor girl who wielded a mean Barbie, conking her sister on the head), however banning gun play/war play is not the cure for aggression. And as you say, such games as my son (now 12) has played and plays with his friends involves rescues, heroism, and other good character traits. My question is, why did this hysteria ever take root?

Jonathan Turley: I do not wish to dismiss the opposing view, which is based on good-faith concerns. However, this does appear to remain a very small minority. Of the more than 200 e-mails that I have received, about six have been negative. Likewise, in our neighborhood kids often play these games.

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Vienna, Va.: Jonathan: I am a former neighbor of yours who enjoyed watching you perform your "magic tricks" to entertain kids at parties. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts. My wife and I have shared your concerns about exposing our boys to guns with similar results: they turned other things into guns to meet their needs. We now focus on explaining the danger of guns in "the real world." However, I think the biggest challenge for parents comes from video games, which regularly depict violence, with swords or light sabers substituting for guns. What's your feeling about dealing with this issue?

Jonathan Turley: Thank Heavens someone finally has recognized my budding child magic career (only good to around three given my patent lack of skill). We are very hard on video games -- my kids have Game Boys with no violent games. They only can play on the weekends for short periods. I am much more concerned about the mind numbing effect of these games than play guns and swords.

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Anonymous: Perhaps a bit off topic, but how does one go from writing about things like the Feres Doctrine to kids playing with guns? Did you find writing a piece for The Post to be refreshing -- the lack of bluebooked footnotes was certainly a welcome change, I'm sure.

Jonathan Turley: Anything without bluebooked footnotes is a joy to behold. In reality, I spend more time thinking and working on being a parent than as an academic (as my colleagues would probably attest to!).

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Wake Forest, N.C.: Just wondering if you read the comments you received (I posted a comment) yesterday. Also, wondered if you learned more from your research or from ordinary people's comments.

Jonathan Turley: I just looked. The current count is 240 e-mails with eight negative comments.

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Military Community: When my son was a toddler at the Base Daycare, he was reprimanded for making Legos into a gun. My husband and I thought that was ludicrous -- the daycare was inside the base! His Godfather suggested that we teach him how to make a round Lego so that he could have a hand-grenade. I'm not crazy about guns, and actually we have no guns in our home, but really, it seems like little boys are hardwired for that sort of play.

Jonathan Turley: These stories drive me crazy. I found dozens of ridiculous responses from school officials. I am not sure what they are teaching beyond blind intolerance and a lack of understanding. I found a number of cases where students were expelled or severely punished when knives could be seen in moving boxes in their cars in the parking lot.

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Bethesda, Md.: I'm expecting my first child (a boy), and don't really like the idea of his having toy weapons, but I recall babysitting for the children of Quaker parents -- no toy guns, of course. The boy pointed his Superman action figure at me, and said "bang." I realized then that nature has a lot more pull in this area than nurture!

Jonathan Turley: Indeed, many parents have told me that kids quickly learn that by ripping off the head of a Barbie, they make prefect faux guns with retractable triggers.

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Chantilly, Va.: Mr. Turley, I really enjoyed your column yesterday. Perhaps the biggest shocker for me was the woman who ejected her children from the bike parade because your kids had rifles. I think there needs to be moderation in all things. I have a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. My daughter is very involved with Barbies, polly pockets etc., and frequently involves my son. He will play along, except for the frequent "bad guys" that need to be taken care of so the "mom" can go back to talking to her "girlfriends" about who she does and doesn't like. Have you found in your research that when boys and girls play with each other, their play meshes together the aspects of both the "get-the-bad-guy" and the "lets-sit-and-talk" aspects?

Jonathan Turley: I was equally shocked. But even in some of the limited negative response, I have been struck by their anger and hostility. One attacked my kids (shown in the pictures) as "listless and joyless." Another seriously informed me that I had defective DNA and explained how this diagnosis was made. Another insisted that I was not only a bad father but, with four kids,  was destroying the planet. The last one would have had better cause for planetary concern if he saw my kids play, of course.

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Princeton, N.J.: I must say I think it is absurd to think guns are wired in the DNA of boys. Suppose you go to a place where guns are unknown & give guns to a mixed group of children. You really think the boys will grab the guns and the girls not?

Jonathan Turley: I hardly can opine on the DNA elements. All that I can report is that, from my observations, there seems a natural inclination to such play, particularly among boys. This is shared by many experts and a great number of parents. Yes, I do believe that boys gravitate toward guns. A recent study showed that there was little difference between boys who were warned about guns and those who were not -- when left in a room with a real gun, they almost all picked it up, and over half pulled the trigger. Girls showed a significantly lower interest.

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Arlington, Va.: From what is getting posted, I'm assuming that you only bother to deal with posters that agree with you, but I find it shocking that you are not teaching your young children that violence (even pretend) is unacceptable. Yes, little boys will tend to pretend everything is a gun (even celery sticks), but responsible parents socialize their children away from the wrong childish tendencies. Shame on you

Jonathan Turley: I am answering the e-mails in their order, not their content. As you can see, few are negative like yours. This will have to be the last because of  the time limit. My only comment is to consider your own approach. I am not ashamed -- I have tried to research the issue and speak with parents on both sides and the vast majority reached the same conclusion as we did. We do watch and nurture our children, but most parents and most experts do not support your view. Yet, few of us would call you shameful or the other parents adopting this view. What we do teach, however, is tolerance and civility to our children.

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