Q. Our 3-year-old son has been enrolled in a day-care center since he was 2 months old.

Recently he has become very interested in "killing" and in "make-believe guns." We feel very certain he has learned these games from children at school.

How can we downplay this violence? I recognize it as a natural thing and don't want to make too much of it, but my husband and I have never owned a gun and we deplore violence.

So far our approach has been to talk about guns with him and tell him that we don't use them and don't like them. Now I am beginning to think we should adopt a different approach as it seems to call his attention to them more.

A. Yes, your little boy probably did learn about guns at school, but if it hadn't been school it would have been from television or the child next door. Warfare seems to be in the nature of little boys, no matter how much their parents abhor it.

It's part of a grisly, prove-it-to-the-world stage--a hint of things to come as a daring young adolescent--and it seems to be much more innate in boys than girls. No matter how equally we rear our children, there still is some basic spark that makes boys play a little differently, move a little differently and perhaps think a little differently than girls.

Put two little girls together and eventually they'll play mommy, whether they're tending baby dolls or going to the office (or both). Put a pair of boys together and sooner or later it's king-of-the-mountain time and other competitive games. If they can't play with guns they'll use little sticks and when you forbid that, they'll turn bigger sticks into swords.

You need to handle this behavior the same way you'll handle the rowdiness of his early teen years--by looking the other way as much as you can and stopping him when you can't.

As you've found, the more you object openly to his using guns, the more alluring they become. When you draw a line in the dust your child will jump over it, if only to keep his self-respect.

You'll be most persuasive when you tell him why you don't like guns, rather than why he shouldn't like them. But don't assume your counseling will have an immediate effect.

At this age, he's 10 years too young--and too egocentric--to understand such an abstraction as death, but he's not too young to live by a few rules.

Don't hesitate to say, "Sorry; I don't like guns in my house." The apology is as perfunctory as the explanation.

Although you don't want your child to own guns or play with them in your house, you can bet he'll play with them when he visits a friend and play with make-believe guns at the day-care center if he's allowed.

When he grabs a toy--or aims his finger--to play shoot-em-up at home, you can create a diversion that will soothe your soul and still let him be both active and constructive. This is a good time to have him help you wash the dog (or the dishes; both are equally messy), or pick up his room, which is more than just bending over, since it often involves raking the floor first.

If the warfare erupts when he has company, especially when one particular child is involved repeatedly, you may want to discourage visits by that child. But even if they play together, the situation is not so grave.

The child who is forbidden to think for himself--and to make some mistakes for himself--will rebel regularly, by doing whatever you dislike the most.

While every little boy--and some little girls--play with guns, even though many parents discourage and even forbid it, they usually outgrow these games by 9 or 10. With guidance and increasing good sense, they will dislike guns as much as you do by the time they're teen-agers and can understand what death is all about.

Questions may be sent to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post. Worth Noting

* The sixth annual Henny Penny Playwriting Contest, sponsored by the Children's Radio Theatre, is open to children ages 5-17. Original scripts--not adaptations--must be typed and less than 16 pages. To obtain the rules, write: CRT, 1609 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. Entry deadline is Dec. 15.