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Why are boys so attracted to gun play?

Children playing with toy guns walk in the Bronx borough New York City.
Children playing with toy guns walk in the Bronx borough New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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Three days after the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Mass.  a 6-year-old boy in Maryland pretended his hand was a gun, pointed the finger at a classmate, and pretended to fire. That  seemingly innocent gesture earned him a suspension from his elementary school.

His family said he was just playing and appealed the decision. School officials said the suspension was not based on a single incident, but agreed to erase the punishment from the boy's permanent record. The controversy over the incident pointed to something parents of many young children know, boys seem to be hard-wired for gun play. 

But why, and what should parents concerned about gun violence or aggression do something about it? Professor Mary Ellin Logue of the University of Maine joins the show to tell us about her research on how children play. 

Interview Highlights:

Has there been research as to why boys are more interested than girls in gun play?
"There is research to back it, the gun play is often a subset of the pretend play that we see in preschool children. Children around the ages 4 or 5 are very active, and boys are more active than girls. We see this active rough play across all species, cross-culturally with boys being higher on the spectrum than girls."

Is there a biological reason for this phenomenon?
"Certainly there's a biological activity level that seems to be present, I think that part of it too is that in the preschool time, Children are trying to learn the culture, and they're trying very hard to be good. And they don't necessarily have the impulse control to always be good and so its not surprising that we have this fantasy play, this bad guy play to really peak at this stage because in order to be good they have to push against something bad."

How much do you think American media or entertainment plays in reinforcing their interest?
"It's not only in the United States, but I don't think we can talk about gunplay, though, unless we look at the cultural context of our country and the exposure that the children have through the media and the stories that they hear through the news. That kind of exposure of what they're taking in. There are a lot of mixed messages they're getting because they are trying to be good, but sometimes the good guys really don't look that much different than the bad guys — how they talk and what they use for tools — so we have to assume that through play and through watching, that children are making their own theories about how the world works."

How can adults steer kids' development and education when it comes to violence and aggression?
"I think parents and teachers need to talk to children about what they're playing and take an active interest in it. I think children sometimes assume that the adults don't want to know or that it's something they need to hide from adults. One of the studies I did…We found that most teachers stop any kind of play that even might hint at being aggressive play, so the children never get a chance to talk about it. Often the parents don't know how to intervene with the children. Sometimes parents who are concerned might only buy the good guys toys and never buy the bad guy toys. I had one little boy say You can't be good unless you have a bad guy."

So parents should talk to their kids about the realities of guns?
"Having that conversation with them is really important, because they are otherwise making their own theories: it looks like fun, it looks like they're having a good time from the movies they watched."

How do parents or teachers tell when play has turned too aggressive?
"I think if you watch children play, you can see the difference. For most children they know the difference between play and not play, but a lot of adults don't know and a lot of adults swoop in when the children are playing rough, they'll intervene immediately. It's when that play will escalate from play to aggression. Those are the children that you need to intervene with. Most children learn the difference between … a nip and a bite. They learn through playing with each other. They learn about those boundaries, but some children aren't learning it that way and those are the children we need to intervene with."