Thursday 3 January 2008


Shooting down the feminist Thought Police?

The UK government says adults should chill out and let boys play with toy guns. But who made us so uptight about kids’ play in the first place?

Young boys should be allowed to play with toy weapons when they attend nursery. So says the UK government. In a new report published this week by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), titled Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, ministers claim that boys’ learning can be improved by their ‘choices of play, particularly superhero and weapon play’.

Teachers’ unions are not impressed. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), complained: ‘The trouble with weapons is that the toy gun is often accompanied by aggression.’ Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), suggested that the government is overriding the wishes of many parents in giving the green light to potentially ‘violent’ play: ‘I do not think schools should be encouraging boys to play with toy weapons, [because] many parents take the decision that their children won’t have toy weapons.’

Beverley Hughes, Britain’s minister for children, defended the government’s report. ‘The guidance simply takes a commonsense approach to the fact that many young children and particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity’, she said. Meanwhile, one commentator went so far as to congratulate the government for facing down today’s ‘feminist-inspired thought police’ by standing up for ‘boisterous play that was once an accepted feature of boys’ behaviour’ (1).

A smidgen of common sense from the government on the issue of children’s play would indeed be very welcome. But, contrary to what you might have read in the papers about the government’s ‘pro-toy gun’ and ‘pro-superhero’ play policies, this is not a case of government ministers finally realising that we should chill out about children’s playtime, and let them have fun without feeling the need to fret about their every move.

Rather, the report seems to think that boys can be ‘improved’, and put on the right educational path, if they are pushed to partake in a bit of shoot-em-up playtime. The report claims that by encouraging boys to engage in ‘weapons play’, the government is putting forward a serious strategy for addressing ‘gender differences in [educational] achievement’.

Whether or not boys, or girls for that matter, should play with toy weapons is really no concern of the government. Children have played cops’n’robbers or cowboys’n’indians for generations without any evidence that it leads to increased levels of aggression or criminal behaviour in later teenage and adult life. Yet neither is there any evidence that weapon play has a specific educational value, and that it can give boys the confidence and self-esteem they apparently need to compete with girls in today’s educational climate. Parents and teachers should not be lectured to by the government about what are appropriate and inappropriate, or useful and non-useful, types of play. Instead, it is high time that adults butted out of kids’ play.

Unsupervised and unregulated play is crucial for young children’s development, and that includes allowing them to play as they see fit rather than as the government says they should. It helps them to control and understand emotions, to satisfy their desires, develop their thinking, make sense of the adult world, and much more. And, of course, such unsupervised play provides pre-school children with a lot of fun.

In Confident, Capable and Creative, ministers try to pin the blame for the reduction in unsupervised play on teachers and parents. ‘Adults can find [weapons play] particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it’, the report complains. Yet if adults had a ‘natural instinct’ to stop fantasy aggression, then surely our parents, in earlier times, would have stopped us from playing war games and pretending to shoot, hack and blow each other up? In truth, they let us get on with our warmongering fantasies.

The problem does not lie with mums, dads and teachers, but rather with a culture in which we are encouraged to fret about how our children relate to one another – a culture which the government itself, now apparently so keen on weapon play, has done a great deal to foster. Today, there is a raft of behavioural codes that regulate playground behaviour; anti-bullying policies in schools around the country intervene into unregulated play and contact between children, and depict everything from namecalling to serious incidents of bullying as deeply problematic; attempts to make schools sports less competitive also teach children and their guardians that rough and tumble, struggling to win, is a ‘bad thing’. Meanwhile, there is a wealth of academic material that claims to show a link between gender-stereotyped play in childhood and behavioural or criminal problems in adulthood.

Such top-down policies have encouraged teachers and parents to intervene in every dispute or competition between children, and to inject some adult ‘rationality’ into messy, uncontrolled, potentially scrappy play. In such an unhealthy climate of overregulation of children’s play, is it surprising if some adults believe that guns and fantasy war games are somehow dangerous?

This is not good for children – and it isn’t good for teachers and parents, either. In his book Worried All the Time, the American psychotherapist David Anderegg provides some interesting insights into the damage that constant fretting can do, especially to the wellbeing of parents themselves. By ‘overthinking and overworrying’, parents are ‘eventually overacting on the decision arrived at in a worried state’, says Anderegg. Anderegg says he is regularly approached by anxious parents who have tied themselves in knots over rather mundane questions relating to their children – the kind of things that our parents never really worried about.

According to Anderegg, the problem with constantly worrying about issues such as whether children should be allowed to play with toy guns is that ‘the choices multiply into an infinitude of decisions that seem like they might determine the course of our children’s lives’.

If parents and teachers feel compelled to consider whether children should be allowed to play with toy guns, what stance would they take on children holding up their thumbs and index fingers and shouting ‘bang, bang’? Should that also be stopped? What about water pistols? Paint-balling? But then, what if the child who is denied the opportunity to go on a paint-ball outing ends up being ostracised by his peers? Once ‘overworrying’ is institutionalised, the list of potential problems facing children goes on and on.

It is sad that parents and teachers are encouraged to waste so much of their mental energy on issues which, when push comes to shove, really do not matter very much. Whether or not children should be allowed to bring toy weapons to school should be up to the school itself. There may be good reasons for not allowing replica guns in playgrounds. But schools should not be restricting children’s unsupervised play. They should not be preventing play-fighting or rough-and-tumble play, whether it involves chasing, wrestling, kicking or feigned attacks. This type of play helps children form and maintain friendships, and it is important for the development of their social competence.

(1) Boys and their toys, Comment Is Free, 31 December 2007

First published by spiked