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Mama Drama: Supporting Non-Violence in Toddlers

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Dear Mama Drama:

My 22-month-old son has recently started using his toy trains in a way that looks and sounds like a gun to my husband and I. He points the trains at us and makes a “pshh, pshh” sound.

(photo credit)

We are vigilant about not exposing him to violence and are stunned by his behavior. It feels awful to have my child shooting at me.

We believe he has picked up the behavior from a boy at his childcare home whose parents allow him to play with guns and swords. Our childcare provider does not allow him to play with those items in her home, but he does play that way with other toys.

Our initial response has been to stop the behavior by telling him “no guns”, but we realized we don’t really even want him knowing that word yet. I’m worried that this behavior will get worse and need some ideas on how to handle it.

~ Non-Violent Mama

Dear Non-Violent:

I understand how disturbing it must feel to have your child shooting at you when you’ve work hard to keep him from being exposed to violence.  Try to look at the behavior from his perspective. He is imitating a behavior he observed with a peer and is making a sound he thinks is fun. He doesn’t have any idea about the reality of the shooting behavior and what that means in the world. Remember that as adults we have many layers of experience, which our children do not, that give meaning to the behaviors we observe.

Since you are uncomfortable with the shooting behavior, talk with you childcare provider about the type of play occurring between the children and the level of supervision she is providing during their play. Encourage her to redirect and teach the children different ways to play with toys.

This same redirection and teaching is also how you can handle the behavior at home. When your son points the train at you like a gun, remind him, “trains drive on tracks,” and help him roll it on the tracks or floor. You can also distract him from that behavior by engaging in another activity with him.

Be creative in how you respond to the shooting sounds. Think of a replacement meaning for the sound such as the brakes or whistle of the train.  You can also make up a game with him where you add to his repertoire with other silly mouth sounds that he will enjoy just as much as the pshh, pshh sound.

Continue to reinforce safe and gentle behavior with your son as he grows. As his social understanding and experiences expand you will be able to emphasis that theme with him in all of his interactions.

How have you Mamas handled similar situations with your children?

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson December 16, 2011

    I have a much different perspective on this since becoming a mom. I have two friends who are the opposite ends of the extreme. One FREAKS OUT anytime a gun or sword is mentioned and the other lets her boys play freely with them.

    I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve never sought out these boys but my son (who’s sweet and, in your words, “non-violent”), still naturally gravitates to this kind of play. I’ll often see him with his LEGOs or even clothing hangers shooting things up.

    Do I think he’s doing to be the next mass murderer? Far from it. I’ve had some talks with him about it but honestly, I’ve chosen not to make it a big deal but when I freak out about things, he places more value and stock in it.

    I think our kids are at bigger risk with the violent video games and media than pretending to shoot their LEGOs.

    • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith December 16, 2011

      It is interesting the wide range of perspectives we have on this topic as parents.
      My years working with children and families in poverty and abusive situations has led me to be on the no weapons end of the spectrum. I don’t freak out, but do talk with my kids often about why we don’t play in violent ways. “War is not a game,” is a phrase I borrowed from a book a friend gave us about children in war torn countries. The little one in this Mama Drama question is a bit to young to understand that, however.
      Most of us are so fortunate that our own children don’t have to worry about violence in their lives on a daily basis, but for many children that is the reality.
      I agree that the violence perpetuated in video games and other media is extremely detrimental. It desensitizes children to the reality of violence and implies that this behavior is acceptable.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz December 17, 2011

    This part is especially valuable to me: “He doesn’t have any idea about the reality of the shooting behavior and what that means in the world.”

    Too often with my kids I attribute meaning and motive where, in all likelihood, there is none. Yours is a good reminder not to overreact.

    • comment avatar Lisa December 19, 2011

      So glad that nugget caught your attention, Lori. I try to let it guide me as often as I can.

  • comment avatar Ryan Espinoza December 18, 2011

    Interesting discussion. My 6 year old son used to “shoot” us and we had him change his “bullets” to something that can freeze or “fire” others, but never permanently. We also teamed up against imaginary bad guys (or monsters/aliens), as we “love and care for each other too much to fight against each other” type of mentality. We embrace beating the bad guys, and being heroes.

    • comment avatar Lisa December 19, 2011

      Thanks for sharing your creative response, Ryan. Love the way you’ve shaped the behavior to support your familiy’s perspective.

  • comment avatar Amanda December 22, 2011

    Ah, husband is a detective. We have a real gun in the house. One that dad wears to and from work. One that has bullets. Sound scary? I never intended for my house to ever have a gun.

    We embrace the power a gun brings and talk about it openly with the kids (ages3 and 5). We discuss gun safety at length with them. As far as play goes, they poften play cops and robbers. They have 2 toy squirt guns (a gift, nice right?), but that doesn’t stop them from making their own. I’m open to this type of play as I get a glimps into what they have learned and what they are hearing from us. It’s nice when you hear our teachings come out in play.

    All in all I think the focus should be on safety measures for what to do if they see a gun, a friend with a gun, etc.

    Good discussion!

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